Welcome 2017: The Year of Me

It’s the time of year when people make resolutions or goals to make themselves and their lives better, but what’s wrong with being happy with the self I’ve grown to be?  I’m tired of seeing quotes and articles saying, “13 Ways to Make 2017 Better,” or “Simplify Your Life and Be Happier,” or “Reach for the Stars by Setting Goals.”  Then there’s the other side of the story: “Be Content with What You Have in Your Life.”  For the past few years, I’ve vacillated between looking for something more and being happy with what I have, so this year, I’m going to trust my gut.

If I get the urge to take the dog for a walk even though I’ve walked her already once or twice, I’m going to do it.  If the book I’m reading is calling to me, I’m going to read it.

I’m going to revive long-ago hobbies: Playing the piano. Sewing. Baking goodies for others.  Volunteering. Cross-country skiing.

I’m going to revisit some routines: Read a devotional every morning and write about it. Write in my gratitude journal every night.

In 2017 (and the last few days of 2016) I’m going to be me.  The me that my gut tells me to be.

If You Give a Student a Chromebook…

I have many colors in my hat with one of them being a proud union member.  Our local union suggested each school take a turn attending two school board meetings per year. It was my building’s turn tonight.  Earlier, someone suggested sharing a highlight or two from our classroom. I immediately thought, I can do that.  Then came the hard part–deciding what to say and how to say it.

When my students encounter this same struggle, I suggest they use a mentor text.  Many times I provide a few or sometimes they find one themselves.  I decided I would take my own advice, and I’m generally happy with the end result.

Thank you to Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie for inspiration.

If you give an 8th grade a Chromebook…

They will use it to find additional information such as statistics to support their argument.

When using those statistics, they will be reminded by the teacher to check the credibility of the source they are using.

When checking the credibility of a source, they will use higher-order thinking skills.

When using higher-order thinking skills, they become critical consumers.

When they are critical consumers, they learn to question everything, including the teacher in the room.

When questioning the teacher in the room, they are reminded to think about their audience and purpose.

When thinking about audience and purpose, they will determine the best method of communicating their message.

When communicating their message, they might decide a note on paper is best.

When thinking about writing a note on paper instead of on the Chromebook, they will be reminded of a favorite class period–Monday Reading Zone.

When thinking of Monday Reading Zone, they will pull out their Chromebook and use the MeL.org database NoveList K-8 to find a new book to read.

When looking for the new book and not finding it in the classroom library, they will ask to visit the school library.

When they visit the library, they will find the book.

When checking out the book, they will be thankful for books printed on paper because the majority of them still prefer the paper copy.

When they return to the classroom, I am thankful for the support our Board has provided. How?

By allowing me the freedom to not use a required, scripted program;

By allowing me to provide students time to “just” read;

By staffing our school library with para-professionals, and

By supporting 1:1 technology.

Your support in these areas have helped me be a better teacher for the students who enter my classroom.  Thank you.

Definitive Answers

On most days, I appreciate the messiness of life and the myriad options available.  Other times, I wish there were definitive answers, but there isn’t.  I’m labeled a Catholic and consider myself religious, but I certainly can’t quote Scripture nor do I know the names of all the saints or even the books of the Bible.  Previously I wrote about my wavering faith in the Catholic church.  Since then, I accepted an invitation to attend a different congregation which has resulted in a developing affirmation of the Catholic teachings.  Why the change of heart? Basically because the priest’s sermons are not telling me exactly what I should think. Instead, he uses his own life stories to share how he values the Catholic views of the Bible.  He shares his sins and validates how difficult life’s decisions can be.

Growing up, I heard the parables Jesus used to enlighten those around him. I grew up learning to be kind-hearted, giving, and grateful for what I had because my family and friends’ families modeled the teachings we heard in Bible and the preachings of our Christian leaders.  Yesterday I attended church on Thanksgiving for the first time in years.  As I listened to the sermon, I found myself struggling between the word acceptance or tolerance.  I’ve read, and continue to read, numerous pieces about why people voted for President-Elect Trump so I can understand their choice.  At some point during the sermon, (yes, sometimes my mind wanders during the sermons) I realized that it’s not acceptance or tolerance that is asked of me but empathy.  Jesus empathized, and in my basic knowledge of other religions, I believe empathy is a core foundation across all of them.

The idea of having either acceptance or tolerance explains my struggle with having a definitive answer when asked my opinion on abortion or right-to-die legislation or testing of amniotic fluid for genetic disorders or a lengthy list of individual choices. Life is complicated to say the least.  I cannot infringe upon other’s rights and beliefs.  It is the reason I love America. What I can do is support the people as they make these difficult decisions.  I can trust they will make an informed decision because they have been given information, not one-sided propaganda. I can be thankful I do not have to make the choice myself.  I can, and should, have empathy for them.

Just Reading?

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I hear it often, “All your students do on Monday is read a novel of their choice?” I then wonder, why is choice reading being questioned but not:

1. Runners running laps, trails or miles on the road,
2. Basketball players of all levels attending open gym,
3. Teachers providing Genius Hour or 20% Time,
4. Math teachers flipping their lesson so kids use class to work on problems?

Recently I met with a group of fellow English teachers four Thursdays after school to discuss Wilhelm & Smith’s book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them. Every one of us knew we were doing the right thing by allowing our students choice in reading material but this research study validated our choice.

What did I learn?
1. There are four types of pleasure readers can experience when reading.
2. Each of the pleasures provide opportunities for my students to become stronger individuals.
3. Readers choose to read what they need at that moment in their lives.
4. I can continue to support my students as they make their way through the challenges of being a teen by validating their reading choices.
5. I must continue to provide “open gym reading” for all my students so they can move forward from where they are.

Thanks for researcher and writers such as Wilhelm & Smith, who continue to prove the importance of choice reading,  my students will “just read” on Mondays.

Murder or Imagined?

On Election Day 2016, my students held a debate not about any election being held but whether the murder in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” was an actual murder or was imagined/dreamed.  I want my students to be active listeners, something I struggle with myself, so I knew I would require them to paraphrase or somehow acknowledge something someone else stated. I also wanted to somehow ensure everyone’s voice was heard.  Luckily I found the idea of students folding an index card each time they spoke. (Thanks UNC School of Education!)   There are no better words than my students words to explain their learning:

“When you had to listen to other people for me it made me question my thinking. I doubted my thinking. I questioned my own thinking about it.”  Jakob

“The debate was interesting. The rules made it a little bit harder. Although it was better. Referencing someone else’s thought made it better because you actually had to listen. You couldn’t just blurt out which made it a good learning experience.” Natalie

“I liked the debate–it allowed everyone to talk not just the ones who shout out.  It helped me understand other’s point of view.”  Tyera

“It made me really think about how to rebuttle (sic) and see different sides of the story.  During the debate you had to restate something that someone said and it made me think do I agree or do I disagree?”  Averie

“I learned I need to take a chill pill and l learned how to deal with other ideas.”  Austin

My job as a teacher is to help students be successful beyond my classroom walls.  Having this debate and then continuing to reinforce the skills of listening and acknowledging other’s ideas is one way I’m doing just that.

Emma’s Reflection Poem

We could go on forever

Forever I say.

It’s undecided

There is no truth

No right

No wrong.

Forever, in the back of our mind

A question grows, and grows, it will

Never

Fall.  We will

Never

Know what happened in that home

At 4:00 AM.

Picture Books & Eighth Graders

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Serendipity. Even before I read the Katie Wood Ray quote on twowritingteachers prompt for today’s Slice of Life, I had decided I’d share an activity I used in class today based on Katie’s book Wondrous Words.

For the past four weeks 24 of my eighth graders spend 3 days a week writing for the sake of writing.  Today we wrote, but we also read picture books.  For 30 minutes I watched as my eighth graders read to each other and flipped through colorful picture books.  For the entire 30 minutes, conversation about books and writing took precedent over social events.  Talk about engagement!  I walked around the room, gently guiding their study of text structure, but mostly eavesdropping and smiling. 8:30 am and they were awake, reading, discussing, arguing over picture book structures.  Sometimes I answered a question such as, “What if the book fits more than one of these?”  But the best moment came with a few minutes left to class. “Are we doing this again tomorrow?”  I hadn’t intended to do so, but how can I say no to begging 13 and 14 year olds who usually are so intent on acting older than they are?  Their enthusiasm and the joy of watching them act like young(er) children is certainly a reason to read more picture books tomorrow and then write for the sake of writing.

Transition I–Sometimes I’m Still Angry

Summer has passed and the fall weather surprises me with the warmer than usual temperatures, sun and no killing frost. I’m having a hard time realizing over a month of school is behind us.  I didn’t take any official courses to further my credentials this summer, but the experience I lived through, and continue to live, certainly did educated me.

As I wrote in my last blog post back in May, I am a forever-parent. A parent of a child with special needs that resulted in me diving into the realm of filing for guardianship and SSI benefits.  What an educational tour it was.  Each time I thought I’d filled in every piece of paperwork, made the necessary calls, and finally understood the system, another piece of paper would enter my mailbox, another message would blink on my answering machine, or another hour or more was gone from my life as I tried to determine the next step or what I’d missed in the previous step.  As an educated adult with four college degrees, I felt uneducated, unprepared and just plain dumbfounded many days this summer.

I waited to file for SSI just because I wanted to concentrate on the guardianship portion and wasn’t quite sure if we really should apply.  Numerous people gave me their opinions which I appreciated, but I still waited while thinking, I’m educated.  I teach people how to read and write.  I have friends who know pieces of the system. How can I not figure this out? How do people that aren’t as educated figure it all out?

With nervousness rising to the top, all the emotions the morning of the guardianship court date took me by surprise.  There was the humorous moment as Amy said, “I don’t know.” when asked by the judge if she will listen to me, her mom and newly-appointed guardian.  And the proud moment as Ali helped Amy through the proceedings even offering to be sworn in by her sister’s side and answer questions too.

I’m still working on learning my new role as guardian and registered payee, and we are all still processing Amy’s new placement in the Transition I program.  She’s struggling a bit at home. Her daily routine requires more independence since she’s out in the public more than the school environment, so I’m not surprised. We work through those moments, but I still find myself getting angry wondering if life will get easier as she continues to mature and grow. Then I remember “Little Things”   and smile.  (Thanks Kinetic Affect.)

Guardianship

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Sometimes it’s hard not to be angry. On Sunday, June 5, we attended Amy’s high school graduation ceremony. I was proud but I’m quite certain my feelings were not the same as the other parents as they watched their children walk across the stage. Amy was walking into new challenges just as her classmates did the same. But is it really the same? Amy’s not looking to be out on her own, planning her gap year, attending college, joining the military, applying to an apprenticeship, or looking for a job until she can figure out what she wants to be. There is no high school diploma for Amy, but a Certificate of Attendance. To say I am not proud would be a lie, but to say there are no feelings of resentment or anger would be a lie too.

As other senior parents celebrate their children’s 18th birthday and realize their children are now legal adults, we are figuring out how to apply for guardianship. Yes, it’s one of the additional items we, as parents of a child (now adult) with special needs, must write on our to-do list. In the past few months when I’ve mentioned this, everyone I spoke to was surprised. They looked at me with a blank stare until I reminded them Amy turned 18 at the end of May. “She’s legally an adult.”

“Oh, I guess so. I never thought of that.”

I sarcastically wanted to say, “And why would you?” but bite my tongue, as I know it’s the anger inside of me.

One time during the above exchange with a friend, I remembered a morning around my own high school graduation. My dad entered my bedroom, sat on the end of my bed, explained to me how my decision the night before upset my mom, and how he told my mom, “We’ve had 18 years to raise her. We’ve done our best. It’s up to her to make the right decisions.” Recalling that memory helped me pinpoint some of my anger. I would not be releasing Amy into the world of adulthood as my dad did for me that morning.

The Graduate

The Graduate

As I celebrated Amy’s accomplishments this May and June, I fluctuated between happiness and resentment. Friends and family at her graduation party told us, “She’s so grown up.” “She’s a great young lady.” “Look at how she is greeting every single guest.” “You’ve both done a great job raising her.”  I thanked them as I nodded in agreement.

The next day, however, as I helped Amy come down from all the excitement the day before and tried to help her understand I couldn’t make my homemade enchiladas for supper when it was already 5:00, I felt the anger rise. Unlike most parents of seniors, instead of having to prod our daughter to write her thank you cards, we will be the parents who will need to help her match the signatures in the cards to the mailing labels. And, this is just one difference proving to me that, unlike my parents, we will never be able to fully release Amy into the adult world. Instead, she will always be our adult-child. The resentment triggered at these moments, eventually turns to guilt. Why do I have the right to be angered by my child’s needs? I know too many parents who have lost their child or whose child’s needs are so much greater than Amy’s. It is then when I take a step back and tell myself, sometimes it’s hard not to be angry, but I must also find a way to grateful too.

Best Time of My Life

We hear it often, “That was one of the best times of my life!” People announce it after vacations, celebrations of monumental events, evenings sitting around with friends enjoying conversation and laughter (sometimes under the influence of a few brews), and activities where adults transform into children again. But, how often do we hear people say it after spending a week at work? And if we do hear the proclamation after that situation, how often do we judge the person to be a workaholic or are we tempted to say, “Get a life.” But why? Why can’t work be one of the best times of our lives? Why do most people look at me strangely when I tell them the work I do for NWP is one of the best times of my life even if it takes me away from my family?

National Writing Project work certainly is not easy, but maybe that’s part of making something a “best time of my life.” It’s the challenge. Late last summer, NWP asked me to spend four-and-a-half consecutive days in a room reading, analyzing and writing about other teachers’ student writing. That’s right, we didn’t look at even a single paper of my own students’ writing. I love being in the classroom with my 8th graders (yes, 8th graders), so why was I willing to leave them this past week to do more of what I do as an English teacher? Everyone in the NWP knows, but how do I explain it to others, including my students? To say I’m passionate about teaching and learning works but is superficial. Cliché’. To say I’m honored NWP Research and Evaluation staff think I can add to the work, is an understatement.

This past week, in two small hotel conference rooms, NWP staff and Teacher Consultants gathered to build capacity. The experts in the room, those I cling to in hope of being more like them, know and expect those of us less experienced, to teach them something too. That’s a piece of the challenge on my part, to add to the conversation even if I struggle to find the academic vocabulary to do so. It is the belief they have in all of us, regardless of our experience, to learn and grow with them, not just from them. Not one of the more veteran staff members or TCs is there to only impart their knowledge; we are all there to learn from each other.

I tell my students, “Our classroom is similar to a gym, but instead of our bodies sweating, our brains sweat.* That’s exactly what my brain did this week, but instead of dropping pounds (we read, we eat, we read, we eat), I built brain muscles. During this past week, I worked on a shared computer with two amazing, intelligent, experienced educators. They taught me to predicate commentary. They shared their own struggle as we mined our vocabulary to explain exactly what we saw in the student writing. Then in true NWP style, they paired me up with another less-experienced, but still amazing, educator to peer conference and fine-tune our individually-written commentary. As Bob and I analyzed the student writing, predicated, and wordsmithed our confidence in our own knowledge and expertise grew. It’s that feeling, the feeling of growing, of learning, and helping each other, that is one of the philosophies of the NWP since its inception. It’s one of the reasons participating in any NWP event is, “One of the best times of my life.”

Friends and Motivators

A year ago, I wrote about my almost-40-year friendship with Lisa. Yesterday I visited with Lisa again, along with another classmate who I hadn’t seen since high school. Numerous times Bill and I tried unsuccessfully to arrange for a quick lunch or drink when I’ve travelled out West. This past January our schedules finally worked until I my missed connection in Detroit ruined our three-hour window. So when Lisa texted me on July 4 that both she and Bill would be in town later in the month, I immediately checked my calendar only to find out I would be out of town except for a few hours on Sunday. I kept my fingers crossed and Lisa kept me posted.

Yesterday, for a little under two hours we reconnected. Our conversation covered everything from jobs, romance, sports, children, Burning Man, to life in the UP and our parents. During this time, two specific moments defined why Bill and Lisa are in my life even though distance separates us.

Bill’s comment, “I haven’t seen any blog posts lately from either of you.” and Lisa’s question, “Have you been running?” provided that little extra push (and guilt) to move me from thoughts to action. I have a list of blog post ideas, including one about how I became a runner this past spring, but then I clean the bathroom, do the laundry, water the flowers, walk the dog, check social media, enjoy the sunshine, visit with family and friends, and continue to postpone the writing, and running.

Not anymore though. Last night I mentioned to Todd about registering for a race with Lisa in September. After going for a quick run this morning, I’m making it a priority to write this post before work invades my free time this week.  I revisited my blog post list and added to it too. All because two people, two people I rarely see, know me well enough to make a comment and ask a simple question. This is why I don’t let distance and time separate us. This is why I call them friends (and motivators). Thanks!

PS—Lisa, waiting for your post with the picture.