Monday, November 20, 2017

Student-Led Conferences

For the second year in a row, my students are leading their parent/teacher conferences.There were several reasons behind my decision:

  1. I never understood why parent/teacher conferences were just for the parent and the teacher, when the student is doing all the work
  2. It's a time saver
  3. Most important: these conferences give the kids a chance to reflect on their work, celebrate, and set goals. In short, they are ownership of their education.
I first saw this approach in my daughter's sixth grade class (shout out to Mrs. Julie Zei: you are amazing!!) Mrs. Zei had the students collecting artifacts all throughout the year to share at both their spring and fall conferences. I thought I'd try the same thing, even though we only have conferences once a year in November. Starting small, I modified: the kids' literacy binder became a "Data and Goal Tracking Binder," with tabs in math and literacy for assessments, data, and goal setting. The students have all kinds of artifacts in it: math pre- and post-assessments, fact fluency data, reading pre- and -post-assessments, writing samples, this yearly reading goal sheet, this monthly reading log (not signed by parents, just for students to analyze things like stamina, genres, and reading pace), and this trimester book list.

Preparing for conferences comes in two parts. In part 1, the students reflect on their learning so far this year but filling out this student self-evaluation. They get their data binder off of the shelf and look for two artifacts: one that they are proud of because it shows how they've grown, and one that shows something they are currently working on. Each one gets tabbed with a sticky note so it's easy for the kids to find during the conference. They write a bit about each artifact - it's basically why they chose that artifact to share at the conference. Once those two pieces are found, the students set three goals for the remainder of 5th grade, and share how their parents and I can help them achieve those goals. The back side is a social-emotional reflection in a similar format: one thing they are doing well in school, and one thing they are working on. Filling out this reflection takes time (I usually set aside an hour) but the reflection you see your students doing is TOTALLY WORTH IT!

Part 2 of conference prep comes as a role play. We usually do this the day of, or the day before conferences. Students partner up and practice presenting their artifacts at their conference. I require that the student introduce me to their parents to kick off the conference, so we practice that as well. Before they partner up, I model being the student, and I ask for two volunteers, one to be the parent, and one to be me.They LOVE this. I run through the entire conference acting as the student, sharing my artifacts and why I chose them. Then, I release them to practice, circulating, listening, and offering feedback to the students. This part usually takes about 45 minutes, as I want each partner to practice several times. I would not recommend skipping this part, as it really cuts down on the students' anxiety at the actual conference.

The conference itself is really fun! I sometimes prompt students who are nervous or need a little support, but overall, they have been wonderful. The students really like being part of something that is usually a big secret (but shouldn't be), and the parents like seeing their kids step up and have some ownership over their education. The feedback I've gotten from parents and administration has been overwhelmingly positive, and I've found that the kids are so much more invested in their work because they've shared their goals publicly. An unexpected side benefit? I don't spend as much time preparing for conferences! Having my students lead their conferences has definitely been a risk worth taking.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

There Is Still So Much To Do

As I worked on organizing new math curriculum materials in my classroom yesterday, I realized that we have three weeks until the kids return.

There is still so much to do.

My plan yesterday was to change seating as I continue to move more and more toward a flexible seating arrangement for the kids. But when I saw the boxes of math, my scattered brain moved in a different direction. I turned away from the seating arrangement and sought out ways to organize the manipulatives and tools in a way that the kids could grab what they need when they need it. So seating will have to wait for another day.

There is still so much to do.

I have been reading professionally all summer (insert sarcastic remark about teachers having summers off here.) Paul Solarz' Learn Like a Pirate, Mraz and Hertz' A Mindset for Learning and Lisa Highfill's The Hyperdoc Handbook have informed my professional life. But I was BLOWN AWAY by the thoughts put forward by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst in their latest literacy gem, Disrupting Thinking. Helping readers read in ways that create compassion and kindness in them. Guiding kids to read and understand not only what the text says, but what they think and feel as they read. Thinking critically. Disagreeing with the author. Learning how to spot inconsistencies in information that's purported to be true. WOW. This is my job, and it's never been more important.

There is still so much to do.


I read over 30 middle grade and picture books this summer, in preparation for books talks and for our first foray into #classroombookaday. Stocking our class library with books that will represent all my wondrously diverse students was, is, and will continue to be a huge goal. Do I have books they can hold up as a mirror and see themselves? Do I have books they can hold up as a window and see the world? Do I have books that will challenge their thinking, help them develop empathy, see things from another's point of view? Will the books I choose to read aloud each afternoon before we leave reinforce the necessity of compassion and kindness? In a world where leaders are cyberbullies, it is vital that we, as teachers, do whatever we can to instill empathy and compassion in our young people. We have an incredible job. We can be a force for peace through education. Each and every book that I encourage my students to read sends a message: I believe in you. I see you. I want for you to be as kind and compassionate as I promise to be to you.

There is still so much to do.

The literacy curriculum we have is great. It offers choice in reading and structures that develop the students' critical thinking skills. But I want to go further. Inspired by Jess Lifshitz (she shares a TON on her blog) throughout the past year and again at the Chicago Scholastic Reading Summit, I want to help my kids see that what they research has meaning. That they can use their writing to have a voice. That they can make a difference. This means adjusting the curriculum to meet the needs of my students and this world they live in.

There is still so much to do.

I am terrified as I write this. But I am also emboldened. The support of my administration is second to none, and the inspiration of my colleagues - in my building and in my PLN - serves as a touchstone, guiding me and moving me forward. Yes, there is still so much to do. But we can do it. We can do nothing less.

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Thank you to the amazing crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share my Slice of Life. If you'd like to read more wonderful stories, click here!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joy in Sarah's Face

I have a new favorite thing. It's what happens to my 15-year-old daughter's face when she finds something really funny. Whether it's something she read in a book, saw on Instagram, or heard one of us say, her face goes through an amazing transformation. She starts in "resting bitch face" or RBF (her words, not mine, and very typical in our family) but then, something magical happens.

The happiness starts in her eyes, which look up from whatever she's doing and go wide, as though she's just had the most brilliant idea. They glitter and shine like the sun reflecting on the ocean. Then, the rest of her face joins the party. Her cheeks lift, her mouth opens, and her lips pull back in a huge smile. Sometimes there's laughter, but it's mostly - and a little ironically - a silent joy. Not one millimeter of her face is excluded.

The other day, I witnessed this step-by-step awesomeness. I was slightly worried that I'd offend her, but I took a chance and said, "When you find something super funny, your face is so great. It reminds me of that thing the sloth at the DMV in Zootopia does when he hears or tells a joke."



Her response? She made the face, so I guess she found it funny.

I'm not sure who was happier in that moment.

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Thank you to all of the wonderful folks at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share this small slice of life. To read more slices, click here and click on "Slice of Life"!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

When FOMO Leads to Gratitude


It's day two of NerdCamp in Parma, Michigan and I'm on my couch. I have mixed feelings about this. Tomorrow is my 44th birthday and, every year for the past I-don't-know-how-many, my twin sister and I have celebrated together. She usually comes here so we can bask in the warmth and glory of Summer Chicago, but we have also met in California a time or two. Needless to say, we've been together this time each year before NerdCamp was a twinkle in Colby Sharp's eye.

So why do I feel like I'm missing out this year? This is the fourth year of NerdCamp. I've known about it since its inception, and I always thought, "Hey, that'd be fun, but I'm having a good time, too!" This year is different. As I write this, I think it's because my relationships on Twitter have evolved and become deeper. For the first time since I joined Twitter in 2009, I am part of a tribe. My #bookexpedition crew and I have become friends. I've even met a couple at various conferences (I wrote about it here.) And, as I write this, it's the realization that a shared experience around books is what I really love, emphasis on shared. To work toward bettering the reading lives of our students, and to share that experience with other like-minded folk, is it. The tossing back and forth of ideas, the expressing of mutual favorite books, and the learning and growing together is what truly energizes me.

Me (l) with my sis at Wrigley
I actually feel a bit bad writing this, because I am having the TIME OF MY LIFE - as always - with my twin sister!! We caught a Cubs game (they actually won), have spent countless hours in the pool with family and friends, and are going to see Hamilton on Thursday! The quiet times we've had talking about major life changes (her) and the hilarity of raising The Teenager™ (me) are life-sustaining. No one gets me the way she does. We have unique shared experiences that are precious to me. That, coupled with the fear that this may be our last summer where we get a big chunk of time together (those major life changes lead us to amazing, yet different, places) makes me feel a little guilty about my case of FOMO. But I guess it's okay to have an amazing celebration with my super fab sissy and feel a little sad that I can't be somewhere. NerdCamp will be around - it's grown unbelievably successful, so I can't imagine it would end any time soon - and this time my sister and I have together is so fleeting.

In the end, after working my way through the jumble of feelings, I am grateful. Grateful to have this time with my sister (who has come, and stayed, despite some craziness going on with her family.) And also grateful that I have a tribe who I connect with so much that I miss them a little when they're together. So I'll follow them on Twitter, celebrating with them as they learn from rockstars like Stacey Riedmiller and Pernille Ripp and meet wonderful authors like R.J.Palacio and Elly Swartz. Then I'll put down my phone and celebrate my life with the one whose been with me through it all. That's what I'd call a win-win.

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Thank you to the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share my Slice of Life. To read other slices, click here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Week of Wild Reading, Part I

The first of a two-part slice on my week of wild reading!

What a week of growth and change! In what were both firsts for me, I signed up for the Scholastic Reading Summit and the American Library Association Annual Conference. Both were in Chicago, just days apart.  I warned my husband, "I've got a nerd week coming in June. I need your support." And support he gave.

Reading Summit day came at 5:00am on Wednesday, June 21. I was awake before my alarm, excited to see what the day would bring. Armed with a bag and a cup of coffee, I was ready to attack Scholastic's Reading Summit with Marcia & Shannon, fellow friends and book nerds. We arrived in time for Breakfast with Mr. Schu, who I have been following on Twitter but had never heard speak in person. What a dynamo! He did his favorite thing: book talked. I did my favorite thing: added to my Goodreads. After hearing Kwame Alexander's absolutely wonderful talk (I never get tired of hearing him speak) we shopped at the book fair, got some coffee, and headed to our first breakout session.
#bookexpedition buddies meet!

Side note: I was unreasonably excited to run into two of my #bookexpedition buddies, Patrick and Katie! We knew we all would be there, but with so many people, we weren't sure we'd be able to meet face-to-face. As luck would have it, they both chose the same first breakout session that I had.

Then, the Summit got even better. Because I signed up early, I didn't know who the presenters for each session were. Imagine my amazement when the person presenting "Empowering Readers" was none other than Jess Lifshitz! I had also known that she'd be there, and we had hoped to meet, but I had no idea that I would be fortunate enough to learn from her. After chatting with her for a few minutes (and getting a book rec: Dan Gemeinhart's The Honest Truth), I settled in to listen and learn. I took PAGES AND PAGES of notes on three areas she chose to discuss: choice, student-created reading goals, and work that matters. Mind blowing takeaways flew at me like confetti.

  • "My goal is to create readers that can exist without me." 
  • "What have you NOTICED as you've been reading?" Jess sets goals with her readers that help them monitor and regulate their thinking about their reading.
  • "What do you do with these goals?" Spoken (teach the class during share while others listen in order to give feedback) or Written (blog posts) reflections help students reflect on and share what they now understand about their reading.  
  • Jess & me, the fangirl
  • "Having biases makes you human. Ignoring them makes it a problem." Teaching that everyone has biases and that is OKAY, as long as you are honestly looking at them is so unbelievably needed into today's divisive world. Jess teaches her students processes they can use to read text differently, which empowers them to view the world differently. 
I will be spending a lot of time on Jess' blog, Crawling Out of the Classroom, as I continue to search for ways to empower my students as readers. On it, she generously shares everything from processes to anchor charts to book lists that help students engage with text in meaningful ways. I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from her at the Reading Summit.

After a lovely lunch, we went to our afternoon session, a panel on independent reading that included Donalyn Miller, Katherine Sokolowski, Jess Lifshitz (!), and . Hearing thoughts and practices from these teacher and principal leaders on topics like reading routines and rituals, social media in literacy, literacy resources, book talks, and parent engagement was really helpful. While some of it solidified my thinking, I was more often encouraged to take new steps in my journey as a literacy teacher. I subscribed to Scholastic's Reader Leader blog, learned about family and community engagement, and found new resources to help my students share their love of reading.

The Scholastic Reading Summit wrapped its day of learning with a conversation between John Schumaker and the inimitable Kate DiCamillo (with whom several of my students became obsessed during our end-of-the-year author study.) All I can say is that the pure joy that radiated throughout that room was palpable and something I'll remember forever.

Reading Summit, you surpassed my expectations, and I am incredibly grateful for a day well spent. Next week, I'll reflect on my crazy morning walking the exhibition hall at the American Library Association Annual Conference!


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for allowing me to share this slice of my teacher life! For more slices, click here!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Summer Senses

What surrounds teachers during the summer is vastly different than that which we immerse ourselves during the school year, so I thought I'd blog about summer from the perspective of my 5 senses.


The summer sun sparkles off the pool in our backyard.
Our dogs lazily lay on the deck, soaking up the sun.
Shorts, swimsuits, and flip flops litter the laundry room.

Hammers pound and drills buzz as demo day begins our bathroom remodel.
The aspen leaves rustle gently in the morning breeze.
Teenage laughter fills the backyard as steaks sizzle on the grill.

The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee wakes me well after the sun.
Coconut sunscreen fills my hands and my head with summer memories.
The scents of hot dogs and beer mean I'm back again at Wrigley Field.

Turning the pages of the book in my hands.
Feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin.
The cool water envelopes and relaxes me, as time is on my side.

The sweet taste of Sarah's smoothie creations, always new and inventive.
Nectarines, blueberries, and strawberries signal summer's arrival.
Coffee's invigoration slides down my throat (well... not everything is different!)

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Thank you, as always, to the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share a slice of my summer life! If you'd like to read more Slices of Life, click here!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova

This graphic novel is a celebration of diversity - both ethnically and academically - something I continue to look for as I search for books that either serve as mirrors in which the kids in my classroom see themselves, or as windows through which they can learn about and empathize with people who are different from them. 

The story centers around protagonist Penelope (Peppi), whose problem - her impulsive choice of pushing a quiet kid named Jaime during a chaotic first day - drives the main part of the plot. Additionally, several subplots (art club vs. science club, friend Maribella's family tension, and the underlying how-to-stop-bullies problem) add dimension to the overall narrative. 

The author's development of the characters was really well done. Penelope is a self-aware problem solver who strives to do the right thing. She knows when she's screwed up, feels guilty, and works hard to try and make it better, even if she's unsure how to go about it. Jaime is so sweet: a science lover who hates competition and wants everyone to get along. Peppi's art club friend Maribella is perhaps the most surprising character: a confident go-getter and seeming leader, a dysfunctional dynamic at home reveals why she is so driven.

I enjoyed this book very much. The panels were beautifully drawn, with the background action pale in contrast to the more boldly-colored up front action. I liked the ending very much, even though it was a little predictable.  The many messages the author revealed through the drawings and the characters actions were ones that my students will totally relate to. I'm sure this book will help kids see themselves in the rich array of characters and help them work through their real-life struggles. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Gaining More Than I Lost

A poem for last Saturday, a day when I learned so much:

Kindness and love win out

Gaining More Than I Lost

The panic rose like a tidal wave
When I glanced at my husband's ringed finger
Then at mine - ringless
Flashback: three rings in a beach chair's cupholder

The panic turned to action
Springing to the car
Tearing it apart
Finding nothing

The panic grew
But so did my family's kindness
My daughter's hug, my husband's hand on my shoulder
I could feel his ring



The kindness quelled the panic
My sister-in-law, determined
Driving back to the beach
To retrace our steps

The kindness brought me to tears
As strangers brought help
And hope
As my two wedding bands were found

The kindness - more than the grains of sand
We continued to search through
To find my engagement ring
20 years old, part of who I am

Lifeguards made phone calls
Families brought sand toys to sift
Retirees on their hands and knees
A community of kindness, searching together

The kindness and love
Of precious family and perfect strangers
Is what was gratefully gained
When a ring was lost and never found

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Thank you to the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers, for allowing me to share my Slice of Life. To read more slices from this wonderful community, please click here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Review: The Perfect Score

Wanting to be a contributing member of our #bookexpedition tribe, I've been a bit more energetic in my pursuit of books I can't wait to get my hands on. Therefore, I was THRILLED when Rob Buyea granted my request and sent me an ARC of his soon-to-be-released realistic fiction middle grade novel, The Perfect Score.

The story is told from the points-of-view of five different 6th grade students, similar to Buyea's wonderful Terupt trilogy.  Score's protagonists - under-pressure gymnast Randi, struggling reader Gavin, big-hearted Scott, bully Trevor, and know-it-all Natalie - could be any student in your class. We meet this fab five in Mrs. Woods' 6th grade class. Woods, a firm yet fair teacher with high expectations, doesn't miss a trick with her students. She is an expert at the read aloud, holds the kids to the highest of standards, and goes to bat for her students. Woods is someone I aspire to be. The students split their time between Woods and Mrs. Magenta, whose math and science classes are less about the right answer and more about solving problems, critical analysis, and thinking outside. However, there's a frostiness between the two teachers that adds to the rising tension in the story.

As the school year progresses, the students, teachers, and administration become caught up in preparing for the CSAs, or Comprehensive Student Assessments. In short, it's the PARCC. School becomes less about what's best for the students and more about "acing" the test. The teachers are exhausted, the kids are angry, and the administration is feeling enormous pressure. It's this testing pressure that leads Scott - whose heart is always in the right place, but often doesn't think things through - to come up with a way for everyone to "ace" the test. The kids are thrilled with Scott's plan, each for his own reason, and all 25 students in Mrs. Woods' class decide that they want in. Of course, things don't always go to plan, and the consequences of the kids' actions are unexpected.

Man, oh man, did I love this book. The characters, and the problems that lead them to make the choices they do, are really well-developed. When I first met them, I labeled them just as I did when writing this piece. I judged them. But as the story moved forward, it was clear that there was so much more to each of them than meets the eye, and I really enjoyed the complexity of each character revealing itself. Buyea also does a wonderful job of giving life to each character's unique voice through diction, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Scott speaks in long, rambling sentences that mirror his thought process. Natalie speaks as though she's writing legal briefs, and Gavin's thoughts are sprinkled with football metaphors. You will fall in love with these five. You will cheer for them. You will cry for them. You will feel their overwhelming anxiety.

As a teacher, I was also extremely grateful to Buyea for shedding light on the pressures of standardized testing, not just from the students' perspectives, but also from those of teachers and administration. Woods' confrontation of Principal Allen - accidentally heard over the classroom loudspeaker - was one of my favorites to read. The teachers and administration in this book said and thought what so many of us wish we could. Thanks for giving us that voice.

This book hits stores October 3, 2017. My copy is hitting the road on its way to various members of my #bookexpedition crew. It will travel from Chicago to Maryland to California to New York and many points in between. I can't WAIT to get it back, full of sticky-noted thoughts and reactions of my bookish friends! This is one that I KNOW my 5th graders will absolutely love, and I'm really excited for them to see the journey The Perfect Score took this summer!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A New Journey

I've seen the hashtags on Twitter: #bookvoyage, #bookjourney, #bookrelay. Groups of teachers and authors who form nationwide book clubs, jotting their thinking on sticky notes in the books, sending them on to the next member, connecting through them. People who love books form a tribe and share their love of reading.

"What could be better?" I thought to myself, wondering how on earth I could start one or become a part of one. This blog post from Phil Bildner, the author of the (totally amazing) Rip & Red series and member of the #bookjourney crew, helped me clarify how their group started, grew, and flourished. But I still couldn't crack the code of how to become "part of a tribe." Insecurity was part of it. Will a group want me? Am I cool enough? Do I have enough to offer?

Then, as though in answer to those questions, I saw that the #bookexpedition group was looking for new members. Swallowing my insecurity, I asked if I could join. I felt like the new kid at school, timidly bringing my lunchbox over to the cool kids' table, wondering if I could eat with them.  The creator of the group, Erin Varley, graciously allowed me to join, along with a couple of other newbies. We are now a tribe of about a dozen teachers and writers, book lovers all.

This new - ahem - expedition I am taking has already changed me as a reader, and as a writer about my reading. I'm reading with a new purpose: to share my thinking with others. I am writing with clarity, with the knowledge that others in my tribe will add their thoughts to mine as our books travel around the country. I am paying more attention to the characters, how they grow and change, and to the symbolism and figurative language authors use to convey their message. I am more connected to the characters. In short, the books are a more emotional experience, because I am sharing them with others.

I just finished my first book for the #bookexpedition crew. Ruth Behar's Lucky Broken Girl will be heading out with a bunch of green sticky notes in it! Next up, Rob Buyea's Perfect Score! I am really looking forward to receiving my first sticky-noted book so I can bask in the thoughts of my fellow book lovers.

I am incredibly grateful to be part of a tribe. Erin, Katie, Mike, Patrick, Amy, Laura, Alexa, Cheryl, Cara, Susan, and Michelle, thank you for helping me grow as we begin this journey together!


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Silent Day Takeaways

Almost halfway through the school year, I got laryngitis. No voice whatsoever; in fact, my friend & colleague told me that whispering actually made it worse. So, there I was, three days shy of winter break, having to unexpectedly rely on my students to run things. And they did. They took over, working together, figuring things out, communicating with each other and with me to continue learning and growing. It was awesome.

Then winter break arrived and, with it, time to actually dig into some professional reading that seems to get pushed to the bottom of the priority list during the school year. My goal was to read Learn Like a Pirate (TLAP) by Paul Solarz, on the recommendation of several teacher friends both in the building and in my PLN. I chose it because, while my class was humming along pretty well for mid-December, there were a couple of things that were bugging me, things I knew I could do better management-wise, but couldn't quite put my finger on them. Reading TLAP and reflecting on my practice helped me identify those "things," and I returned in January armed with ideas to give my crew more control and responsibility in the classroom.

The kids ate them up. Giving them more voice - they ran the mornings, getting each other ready for specials, and the afternoons, setting goals and getting us ready to go home - really helped them feel like the room was theirs. I had been preaching this idea all year, but the students hadn't felt it, because I hadn't given them the opportunities to do so. They took this new responsibility and ran with it. I talked less (and smiled more.) I had more time to connect with students in the mornings and afternoons, rather than wasting that precious time doing lunch count and filling out assignment notebooks. The more control and responsibility they had, the more they respected me for trusting them enough to give it to them. It was a win-win.

Our tribe on the last day of school
Enter Silent Day. According to Solarz, Silent Day is something the students work for all year, a day where they run the classroom from bell to bell. While the teacher is present for supervisory purposes, she is silent. Problems? The kids figure it out. They arrive at school, transition from subject to subject, move around the building, and solve any problems that arise. It is a day of celebration: a responsibility they've earned. To be honest, I didn't think they (read: I) would be ready to tackle a Silent Day. I hemmed and hawed throughout February and March. Then, in late April, I threw caution to the wind, quietly mentioning Silent Day to a group of kids who were with me at the end of the day as the rest were at after school band. Naturally, they loved the idea, and word spread that it was a possibility. We had a class meeting, and I shared with them the philosophy behind Silent Day and that, if they wanted it, they'd have to earn it.

We embarked on a month-long Silent Day bootcamp, knowing that it'd be messy because I hadn't prepared them for true independence for a full year. I sprang unexpected things on them: not picking them up from a special, ringing the transition bell but saying nothing, coming in from recess for math but saying nothing. The less I said, the more they led. They were ready. The day before Silent Day, we had a meeting. They had asked for a plan. I had one ready for them: what you need, who would lead, for every part of the day. I shared with them that I didn't expect perfection, just effort. My biggest concern, addressed in several class meetings, was "bossiness" versus "leadership." We'd see how that played out. (Side note: my administrators were super supportive when I told them what the kids were preparing for.)

Silent Day commenced on the Wednesday of the last week of school (the days leading up to it bought me INCREDIBLE behavior during a time of year that kids are traditionally coming out of their skin. Bonus!) Throughout the day, I spoke only twice: when we were at our local library on a walking field trip (and that was as a fellow book fan, not as a teacher), and when a tech snafu meant a change in formatting that the kids weren't sure how to tackle. That situation took about 5 minutes, then I melted back into the background to observe the kids in their leaderless habitat. They worked hard, they struggled. They succeeded.

I have a tremendous amount to take away from Silent Day, and I want to write it down here before I forget. Much to celebrate, and a lot to do differently. First, the celebrations:

  • They did great! They were a bit uncomfortable at first, feeling a bit rudderless, I think. But they took that discomfort and went with it. 
  • They were flexible! I had a math quiz on the books during our pre-meeting. I got rid of it, opting for them to have more time to create their Civil War website. They saw my note on the board and were good to go.
  • They were really on task! I daresay they were more on task then when I was actually involved. They wanted to succeed at this. They wanted to own it. And they worked SO HARD to accomplish that goal. I'm incredibly proud of them.
  • 100% of the class - despite their discomfort, and despite things they'd do (or want done) differently (see below) - voted that they'd want to do Silent Day again if given the chance. This speaks to the mindset of this group: always wanting to give it another shot, see what happens, see what they could learn from it.
What I'd do differently:
  • As I alluded to a little earlier, I'd give them more responsibility earlier in the year. They still tried to ask me things they need to be doing for themselves:
    • Student: "Where do I put this?" 
    • Me: *cocks my head, waits* 
    • Student: *whispers the answer to her own question* 
    • Me: *smiles*
  • I gave most of the instructions they day before. Why not leave it for them on that day? That was still me trying to be in control.
  • The bossiness versus leadership thing was a biggie. Interestingly, it was during the transitions to and from lunch and recess that this became an issue. When we had our Silent Day post-mortem the following day, this issue was the one that affected most students. Interestingly, even though we didn't use any names (so as not to make the meeting accusatory, but more problem-solving in tone) the students who veered more into bossiness than leadership were uncharacteristically quiet during the meeting. I'm hoping that they were reflecting on the affects of their behavior on their fellow classmates. This one is something I'll need to continue to reflect on as my teaching continues to shift. I knew it'd be an issue going in. We talked - a lot - about the differences between a boss and a leader. But I don't think I gave the kids - neither the bosses nor the boss-ees - enough opportunities to feel or internalize those differences.
All in all, Silent Day - and our movement toward a more student-led classroom -  resulted in huge shifts for me as a teacher. I knew that student-led classrooms were successful, but I hadn't actually experienced what it would feel like as a teacher. My job was actually easier this year. I was less stressed, less overwhelmed with the weight of all the daily decisions on my shoulders. If I wasn't sure about something, I'd ask the kids. Their 10- and 11-year-old brains would come up with creative solutions to problems that my 43-year-old brain hadn't thought of. They became a resource. I became a facilitator. Now I can't imagine running our classroom any other way. I am grateful to Paul Solarz for sharing his ideas in his book, and for my colleagues - both building and virtual - for their collaboration as we continue on this crazy journey called teaching and learning.

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Thank you to the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share my Slice of Life. For more slices, click here!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poetry Cafe

At the request of a Twitter colleague, I thought I'd share some details about a 5th grade tradition at our school: Poetry Cafe.

Nate performs his original poem
In a nutshell, the Poetry Cafe is a poetry slam. The students spend several weeks of writer's workshop creating poems in all different genres. We teachers go about this differently: some have our students create anthologies around a topic and themes, while others focus on figurative language and/or poetic form. Students go through the writing process (generating ideas, drafting, revising, editing, publishing), this time with the grammar-rule-less freedom that poetry allows them. All students also choose a variety of poems that they will perform, "poetry slam" style, in front of their peers, staff members, and invited guests. Students choose 3-5 poems of different genres, and then we organize the slam so that poems are performed by genre, with a narrator to introduce the genre, what makes it special, and who will be performing a poem in that genre. The slam always goes quickly.

Parents seated for the poetry slam
Once the students select, revise, edit, and practice their poems, preparations for Poetry Cafe begin. You see, in addition to being a poetry slam, our students also transform their classrooms into cafes. They are in charge of how the classroom should be arranged. They decorate. They invite family members to watch them perform (see the invitation here.) They choose jobs to do before and/or throughout the poetry slam: set up crew, hosts, servers, and chefs (see the jobs list here.)  Invited guests have snacks and drinks that I bring to school that morning, then, once the hosts have seated the guests and given them a menu and program (you can see it here), the servers and chefs work together, taking and filling food orders.

While all this is going on, students are working together - silently - to be ready to perform their poem. Students help each other get in order, and they make sure each has his or her poem ready to perform (memorization isn't a requirement; expressive performance is) for that genre. As I was watching the slam in action on Friday, it reminded me of a ballet. Students were working in synchronicity, quietly and confidently moving about the room serving food or lining up to introduce a genre or perform a poem. Each knew his part, and everyone worked together. It was a thing of beauty, and I was in absolute awe of them. This year, students performed 85 poems in under an hour while operating a cafe filled with over 20 guests. I ran a slideshow (you can see it here) that the students requested to help keep them organized. Really. That's all I did.

When the students finished slam, took photos together, and hugged their parents goodbye, we debriefed. The feedback is always the same, yet still incredibly powerful: "I loved running the cafe!" "It was so fun to serve guests!" "This was just like real life!" "Performing was easier than I thought it would be!" Poetry, and by extension, The Poetry Cafe, offers students experiences they've never had before. They have the freedom and the opportunities to take charge, make decisions, and collaborate to make an event a success. The looks of pride and accomplishment across the faces of each and every one of my students were so great to behold. The post-slam confidence was palpable. Postures were straighter. Heads were held higher. And witnessing that was worth all the preparation and practice.

Poetry Cafe has evolved over the years, based on the needs of the students. Some years, the kids want to make the slideshow; this year, they didn't have enough time. I'll be sure to make time for that next year so the cafe has more of the students' visual stamp on it.  Next year, I'd also like to have the students write their own "poet biographies," like the author bios we see on book jackets. We can incorporate them somewhere in the classroom or even in the program. Finally, I'd like to make more time for rehearsal. We had an entire morning for it, but some students could have benefited from more than one run-through.

While we teachers are  always thinking of ways to be better, we also know that this experience is one of the most important that we give our students. It is worth the time, practice, and preparation to see it all come to fruition. Creating poetry teaches kids in a way that other writing genres can't. It's vital to upper-middle grade literacy, as a form of expression and communication for those students who might struggle with prose. Poetry can be a gateway to confidence as a writer, and I am grateful that we, as a team, see its necessity in our literacy curriculum.

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I am so grateful for the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me a space to share my Slice of Life.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Foot In Two Oceans

Lots on my mind these days, as it's an interesting time in the school year. This is the time where teachers have their feet in two oceans: class lists, supply orders, and professional development are all springing head to the next school year. But my mind is still making a concerted effort to remain in the present. With these kids. This class. Right now.

So, while I'm making a list of next year's read alouds (what to buy, what to read first to set the tone), I'm also remembering Last Day Blues by Julie Dannenberg. Will it be too sad for this year's class? Will I be able to get through it without crying?

So, while I'm planning how to incorporate deeper student thinking and writing about reading into those class read alouds next year, I'm also conferring with students about their writing about reading and how we can still grow as readers and writers even though there are only 9 days left in the school year.

So, while we're getting a new math curriculum next year and I'm already planning for adjustments and differentiation based on what I already know about my new group of learners, I'm also stretching my current group, exposing them to algebra through hands-on work and problem solving.

And while we're talking about changes in our social studies curriculum, courtesy of the new social science standards, I'm also keeping this year's group engaged through a Civil War reenactment, so they can continue to learn through doing.

And though I'm book shopping, reading ARCs, and planning book talks for next year, I'm also knee-deep in the final week of Book Madness (Wonder vs. Home of the Brave - how does one choose?!?) and helping my kids create summer book stacks so they can continue to love reading throughout the summer and, hopefully, for the rest of their lives.

Having my feet in two oceans is something I'm used to now, as I finish my seventh year of teaching, my fourth in this wonderful district. But I don't ever want my kids to think that I've checked out, that I've already moved on, that I'm planning for the future at the expense of the present. They deserve all of me until that final bell rings on May 26th. And I'll be honest, they'll still have me after the year is over, too.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

5th Grade Book Madness: The Final Four


We're getting down to the nitty gritty, folks! The Final Four of our Book Madness Tournament of Books was revealed to the 5th graders this morning! The buzz in the hallway was palpable. A few students from other classrooms actually asked if I was okay (my all-time favorite book series and room theme-inspiration, Harry Potter, was defeated by the amazing Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave.)

Here's where we stand:
The Final Four: The Lightning Thief vs. Wonder and The War That Saved My Life vs. Home of the Brave
Some observations from the past two weeks as we went from sixteen to eight to four:

  • Students are REALLY passionate about the books they love. Everybody loves a Cinderella story. For this tourney, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War That Saved My Life fits that bill. Making this year's Illinois Bluestem list is the only reason this book is on my students' radar. In our class, Kyle has been its champion. He has written persuasive pieces and made a book trailer promoting the book to his fellow students, and openly chats it up throughout the grade level. 
  • The stress level is increasing as we continue to cut the books in half each week. I wish you could be in my room when we vote on Google forms. "Do we HAVE to vote for each pair?" Drew asked me last Friday, simply unable to choose between The Lightning Thief and Telgemeier's Ghosts. (He went with Percy Jackson, having read the entire series with his fantasy book club. He's currently working through The Son of Neptune, clearly bitten by the Riordan bug.)
  • Students are REALLY attached to certain books! "How did Harry Potter lose?" Devyn whispered to Abby, who shook her head mournfully on the way back to our room. Both are knee-deep in the wizarding world, Devyn moving through Prisoner of Azkaban, while Abby is half way through Goblet of Fire. They - and so many others - were actually sad that Kek had bested Harry in this competition. I empathized, fondly sharing that I struggled to find another series to read when I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the summer of 2007. I was feeling what felt like a bad breakup: constantly thinking about the plot of the last book, remembering all the small moments while reading the series, plotting an immediate - and much slower as I TORE through it - reread. The cure for the worst book hangover I've ever had turned out to be Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. When we returned to the classroom, the students DEMANDED to see the online results of our Google voting form, wanting to see the margin by which certain books had won or lost. 
  • The aforementioned buzz is spreading. Our school librarian is voting. Our principal now has skin in the game, and wants to read The War That Saved My Life (at Kyle's recommendation.) Our instructional coach was wide-eyed at the Final Four, shocked that the Potter juggernaut had lost to a refugee from Sudan (seems fitting.) Fourth grade teachers are reporting buzz in their classes, as their students also see the giant bracket in the hallway outside the bathrooms.
The bottom line? Students are talking about reading. They're debating books, reasoning why their peers should vote one over another. They're upping their creativity, finding new, authentic ways to share their love of books (this Padlet has some great examples of book trailers, Vokis, and Powtoons.) And they're EXCITED. This experiment is doing all that I hoped it would do, and so much more. 

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Thank you to the wonderful group at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share my weekly school Slice of Life! Other slices by wonderful teacher-writers can be found here!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Teacher Who Cares...

A former student got in touch with me on Snapchat a couple of weeks ago. I never think students from previous years remember me. I'm wrong. This young lady, a member of her high school's graduating class of 2018, and her fellow students were my very first solo (read: non-long-term sub) class. They were in 6th grade at the time when the sections grew too big and went from two to three. I was hired to teach the third section in December of the 2011-2012 school year. I was TERRIFIED.

The year was a profound learning experience. I learned that relationships are EVERYTHING. As 6th graders, they needed to trust me. They needed time with each other. Friendships were vital - and volatile - as they figured out who they were during a time of tremendous growth and change. They were a MAGNIFICENT group that will always have a huge part of my heart.

The end-of-year gift
I didn't have any idea of heart permanence can go both ways, until today. Today, this same wonderful young lady sent me a snap of the end-of-year gift I made for all three of my writing classes that year. I had each class write one positive character trait for each of their classmates. I then sorted them and made a Wordle for each student out of the traits their classmates said described them best. Finally, I added a quote and a little note from me. On the last day of school, I presented each student with their gift, feeling both joyous and teary-eyed as they left elementary school for the last time and continued on their journey toward adulthood.

The last thing I expected was that snap. I replied, saying it made me so happy that she kept my gift all these years.

Her reply?

"It's been on my wall since you gave it to me."

Wow. Just wow. I was so moved. I told her that in my next snap.

Her reply?

"A teacher who cares is not someone you forget."

Even sitting here now, rereading those words has sent me from teary-eyed to the ugly cry. As a new teacher, I didn't really know if I made a difference. I survived. The kids survived. Hopefully I did more good than harm. A more experienced teacher friend told me that it's incredibly moving to have former students come back, get in touch with you, or reach out later in life. You see them again, full of pride, knowing that you played a small role. Now that I'm almost done with my 7th year of teaching, I get that feeling from time to time, when young men and women, who now tower over me, come in for a hug and let me know what they're up to. My teacher friend was right: it's fantastic.

But THIS. This feeling is profound. I've never experienced anything quite like it before. Maybe it's because Jhen is from my first class. Maybe it's because they're graduating next year. But I'm overwhelmed with love, pride, gratitude. I did something right. I cared.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

5th Grade Book Madness - week 2

Last week, I blogged about beginning an end-of-year March-Madness-but-with-books competition, where the entire 5th grade (all 5 classes) would nominate a book and we'd whittle them down into 32 books. Students would then persuade each other - through reviews, commercials, comments, conversations - to vote for their favorite each week. It's been a week, and the Sweet 16 have just been revealed, so I thought I'd report in from the trenches and give you an update.

First, some immediate takeaways:

  • 5th graders love to compete! When the 32-book bracket was posted, the students IMMEDIATELY started talking about which books should move forward. There were some HEATED conversations. We learned about disagreeing respectfully and reserving the right to change our minds. 
  • The students wanted access to the books right away. They asked me to put together bin of "just Book Madness" titles. Done.
  • The intra-class aspect was a pleasant surprise! The kids commented on each others' Padlet entries (click here to see some), commented on other people's comments, and continued those conversations at lunch/recess. It's reaching the staff, too! Our LRC director wants to get in on the action, as do several other staff members! The bracket is in the hallway outside the bathrooms we share with 4th grade, and some of their students are beginning to talk about it as well!
  • Padlet is rad. Most students just posted straight on to the Padlet I created for round 1, but some wanted to create Google Slides, book commercials, etc. I discovered (too late for last week but it'll be good going forward) that you can link all of these things in a Padlet post. This enables a VAST amount of creativity as the students come up with different ways to persuade each other which way to vote.
  • Google Forms is FANTASTIC! I thought I'd spend most of my weekend counting votes. But when I clicked on the "responses" tab and scrolled down, Google had scored each one already (click here to check it out.) The Sweet 16 was updated before I left work on Friday afternoon!
Book Madness 2017 - The original bracket
Some questions:
  • Yes, the kids are engaged. But most of their conversations are around books they've already read. Will this competition engage them in new books to read? How do we motivate them to try something new?
  • Many of my students are already knee-deep in book series (Harry Potter, The Heroes of Olympus.) Will focusing on the Sweet 16 mean they may lose interest (and stamina) in those wonderful series?
  • How do I challenge the students to get creative in their persuasive pieces? Class time to make book commercials? Loosen the reins a bit and give them time (that precious commodity) to get creative? Allow them to work together? I think the answer to all of these is a resounding, "YES!" The more ownership they have the more engaged they will be in the process!
  • Will more students be inspired to be creative when there are fewer match-ups? The Elite 8 and the Final Four are just around the corner!
While there is a lot to reflect on as we go forward, all in all, it's been a GREAT week! If anything, it's a different way to consider our reading: what we've read, what we want to read, how far we've come as readers. I can't wait to get to the Elite 8!

Thank you to all the wonderful teachers at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share a slice of my school life!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

5th Grade Book Madness 2017

When you're a 5th grade teacher, PARCC testing over, and there are only 6 weeks left in the school year, what do you do? Anything to keep the students engaged. AN.Y.THING.  For the five of us on our grade-level team, it's all about reading. The third trimester brings with it warmer weather and spring sports, which often lead to a downtick in reading volume.

What to do... what to do?

Our answer is what a lot of teachers have already been doing: a March Madness-style tournament, but instead of college basketball teams, we've got books! I've been thinking about doing this for a while, but could never really figure out how to get it going, until I read this AWESOME blog post by Mary Kienstra (@beebekienstra on Twitter ~ she's definitely worth a follow.) Mary's how-to, combined with her students' enthusiastic response, galvanized me into taking the risk. The team agreed and, armed with this calendar to help us stay on track and make sure we had enough time to reveal the Book Madness Champion, we were off to the races!

The first thing we did was had our students nominate their favorite book using this Google form (thanks, Mary!) The students were super excited, pouring over their reading lists and book logs, trying to figure out which book they've read so far this year was worthy of a nomination. Once all 100-ish students had submitted their nominations, our team of teachers spent some time together whittling them down. 32 of the most-nominated novels were culled from the bunch, "invited" to the tournament, and randomly placed on this bracket, which hangs in our 5th grade hallway.


Now it's up to the students. This morning, my class studied the big bracket in the hallway, as well as their personal brackets we created using this online bracket generator. Each student chose the one book they think will "go all the way." There was excitement: "The Lost Hero is on there! I nominated that one!" There was anxiety: "What if Harry Potter goes up against The Crossover? Who will I choose?" And, perhaps most importantly, there was interest: "Mrs. Barber, can I borrow your copy of Ghosts?" "... of El Deafo?" "... of Belly Up?" They even asked me to make a bin of all of the Book Madness tournament books in our class library. Their enthusiasm was the most exciting part for me and, from all reports, my teammates had similar reactions from their classes!

The coming weeks will be spent using our writer's workshop time authentically as the students create persuasive pieces to convince their classmates to vote for books they've read and want to see move further along in the bracket. Students will use Padlet collaboratively to create and share their pieces, and to comment on peers' pieces. Then, each Friday, students will view their fellow students' pieces and cast their vote on a Google form as we go from 32 books to the Sweet 16, to the Elite 8, the Final Four, and the championship round. We'll tally the votes over each weekend and update the bracket so the students can see who won when they arrive each Monday morning. The Book Madness Champion is expected to be revealed on the last Monday of school. I'm thinking we need to have some sort of celebration!

My hope is to see the excitement and enthusiasm that my students have had about reading all year - and especially during our fantasy book club unit - continue throughout the rest of their time together. I LOVE that this is a grade-level collaboration. We've been looking for ways that the students can work together, and I can't think of a better way than to share our love of books.
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Thank you to the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share a slice of my classroom life.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

My Teacher's Here!

   
     Three of my 5th grade boys were very excited on Thursday. They had all made the same baseball team, and their first game was that night. We all wished The Wolves good luck in their home opener, gave them high fives, and I sent them on their way.
     Cut to the next morning when I asked them how the game went.
     "We didn't get to play," sighed Kyle.
     "Something about the rain from the other day," said Drew.
     "My dad said the field was still too muddy," reported Nathan, the coach's son. "But it's been rescheduled for Saturday morning!"
     My mind started whirling. When I can carve out the time, I try to support my current and former students in their extra curricular activities. I've been to wrestling & track meets, baseball, basketball, and softball games, and school plays. And I'm pretty sure I get more out of it than they do.
     "What time Saturday?" I inquired.
     "I'm not sure," Kyle said. (Pause.) "Why? Can you come?"
     "It depends on the time," I replied. "If one of your parents can text me the time and I can make it, I'll be there!"
     Honestly, I didn't expect the text. I never think my students care whether or not I see them play, perform, or postulate. But they do. So when I got a text on Class Dojo last night from Kyle's mom ("Kyle wanted me to make sure to send you the information for his game tomorrow. It is at 11am at Community Park at the C6 Diamond") I really wanted to try and make it.
     The next morning, spring was definitely in the air, and it was a beautiful day for a ballgame. With the sun shining brightly down on the western suburbs of Chicago, my daughter and I arrived at ball field. The game was already in progress - the Wolves had just scored and were up 1-0 in the bottom of the first - as we climbed quietly up the bleachers. I waved to Drew's parents, introduced Sarah to Kyle's mom, and met Kyle's grandparents for the first time. Finally, I settled in with a cup of coffee to watch the boys. As the second inning started, Kyle was covering second, Nate was behind the plate, and Drew was warming up a pitcher in the bullpen.  I was thrilled to see a familiar face at first base: Jack, one of my boys from last year's class! Looking around, I found his mom in the stands and went over to say hello.
     And then it happened, as it always does when students see me at their activities.
     At the bottom of the second, as the team was coming back into the dugout to get ready to bat, Kyle glanced up into the stands and did a double-take, a huge grin sliding over his freckled face. I waved. He waved back, eyes dancing. He ducked down into the dugout. Nate's head popped up, eyes searching the stands. They locked on to me and Sarah, and he grinned, that infectious Nate smile that makes the world a happier place. I waved. He waved back, then ran over to Drew. Drew turned, bat in hand, and found us. Face lighting up, Drew tipped his hat, then turned to take a few practice swings before heading up to the plate. Jack was the last one to see me, the surprise evident on his face as Nate whispered in his ear.
     The game continued through five innings. The kids played their hearts out. I got to see all the boys play several different positions throughout the next two hours. Drew and Nate both pitched, Kyle played several infield and outfield positions, and Jack saw action at first, shortstop, and third base. I watched them learn from their mistakes, nurture their resilience, and work together as a team. It was a thing of beauty, and not at all different from what they do in our classroom.
     At the end of the game, after the coaches had a quick post-game with the kids, each boy came up to us.
     "I'm glad you came!" Kyle smiled.
     "That was so cool that you were here!" Nate said, hugging me gregariously.
     Drew was quieter, taking the loss hard. I gave him a hug, told him how proud I was of his hard work and to hold his head high. He nodded, smiled, and walked across the field to watch his brother's game.
      This is why I do this. Building relationships doesn't end after the first few weeks of the year. Nurturing those relationships continues until the very last day. It was two short hours of my life, but something these boys won't soon forget. I'll get those two hours back ten fold as the connections I made with them that Saturday morning in the sun continues to pay dividends through the end of May, and through the rest of their lives.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for creating a space to share my slice of life!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Thoughts on This Time of Year

My students and I returned from spring break yesterday. Back to reality: the PARCC starts today (*resists rolling eyes. Fails*.) My students on the whole are confidently anxious, I think, meaning they feel prepared but are anticipating the length and seriousness of the test. There are a few things I did to try and help them reduce their anxiety:

  • I have to cover all of the anchor charts in my room. (Side note: this confused me. All year long we teach the kids to use their environment to foster their learning and creativity, and for two weeks, we take it away. It feels like the people who made this "rule" are setting kids up to fail.) My students weren't thrilled about this, so we decided that they could make posters to cover the anchor charts around the room. That way, the room wasn't bare, and they felt like it was still theirs. My fave: "I solemnly swear I will rock the test." Several were in keeping with our Harry Potter room theme. 
  • Last night I wrote them each a little note that will go on their desks today. I shared with each how much I believe in them, how strong they are, how far they've come. I hope they look at it when they're feeling nervous, and know they've got this. 
My school is great, too! A few teachers got together and created a video to "Get Back Up Again" from the Trolls soundtrack (shout out to Suzanne and Rachel!) It was so fun to make, and I realized that I will do ANYTHING - including wear a troll headband and push our library director around in a chair - if it will make my students laugh and feel less nervous. Our little friends in first and second grade at our sister school made posters that now decorate our halls. They are adorable and my students smile when they pass them in the hallway.

I'll admit, I don't have the best attitude about standardized tests (see the aforementioned failed attempt to cease eye-rolling.) But for my kids, I'll be their biggest cheerleader, fellow test-buttkicker, or anything else they need me to be. This is about supporting them, and not about my feelings.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the opportunity to share my first Tuesday Slice of Life!

Friday, March 31, 2017

#SOL17 Day 31: Never Have I Ever...


Today is the last day of this writing journey we've been on together for the last month. For me, I know this is just the beginning. I had hoped this experience would help me be a better writing teacher. I still hope this. But what I know for certain is that slicing has reignited my love of writing, and I'm very much looking forward to continuing. I hope to see a great many of you on Tuesdays as we continue to share and support each other.

Today is also the last day of my trip-of-a-lifetime. My husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage in Tahiti, and let me just say, it was everything I had hoped it would be, and so much more. I gave a lot of thought as to how I wanted to wrap up this experience and, as usual, was inspired by something that happened at school. A few weeks ago, my fellow teachers, staff members, and I participated in a fun exercise called "Never Have I Ever..." The basic gist goes like this:  everyone is seated except one person. That one person say, "Never have I ever..." and names something he or she has never done. Everyone who hasn't done that gets up and scrambles to find a new seat. The one left standing is the next person to share, "Never have I ever..." It's a really fun way to get to know each other a little bit. So, in honor of both my time in Tahiti, and my work friends at Schiesher and Tate Woods Elementary schools, I leave you with this lists of "firsts" in a similar form.

Before Tahiti, never had I ever...
  • traveled below the equator
  • met and named a puffer fish (we'll miss you, Albus!)
  • snorkeled off the deck to my room
  • seen the ocean through the floor - and glass-topped coffee table- of my room
  • eaten passion fruit 
  • had breakfast delivered by canoe
  • swam in an infinity pool
  • slept comfortably on an airplane
  • had a drink with coconut in it (not a fan of coconut, but this was surprisingly tasty!)
  • had a sunset be a major, multi-hour, multi-color, wonderous event
  • had an ocean view from my bathroom
  • had a run-in with a feisty crab while walking down a path (little guy was FIERCE)
  • snorkeled with a rainbow of fish who let me be part of their "school"
  • witnessed a Marquesan warrior dance
  • watched an actual chicken cross an actual road (I swear, it happened. He was chasing a hen and crossed right in front of our rental car. Maybe THAT'S the reason why the chicken crossed the road!)
  • been to a famous surf spot where the World Surfing League holds an annual contest. If you surf (as my California-raised husband does) this is a big deal. The black sands and monster waves of Teahupo'o are spectacular!
  • been this far away from my kid (can't wait to see you, Bug!)
  • been floored with love and gratitude for my family who moved mountains to make this trip happen (Chance and Lisa, you are my heroes!)

I  hope this post doesn't sound like a humble-brag. These experiences: the writing, the trip, the writing about the trip, have all left me changed, grateful, and growing in new directions. To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd be able to blog daily because of this trip, but I wanted to try, and I'm incredibly thankful that I did. A massive thank you to all of the wonders at Two Writing Teachers for creating the space for us to share and support each other. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

#SOL17 Day 30 - The Rewards of Travel


Our time in Tahiti is almost at an end. We leave late tomorrow night. Last night was Tahitian Marquesan Night at our hotel. The evening consisted of a buffet dinner and a traditional Tahitian performance... kind of like a Hawaiian luau. It was quite something, to be immersed in a culture with which I was unfamiliar and, like most new things, got me thinking.

This is a big reason why I travel. Yes, I love to see new places. Yes, I love to go to warm weather whenever I get the chance (I live in Chicago... I know you understand.) But a large part of why we choose those new warm places is to learn about new cultures, and to remember that the world is both very big, and very small. Someone way smarter than me once said that travel is the antidote to prejudice. I believe that with my whole heart. Learning about new places - their cultures, environments, people - makes you less fearful of the world. I think fear drives prejudice. Whatever we can do to keep that fear from taking over our lives will make the world a better and safer place.

So, go. See new places. Try new things. Meet new people. The world will thank you for it.

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