Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Already a storyteller

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Sorry, we went to Boo At the Zoo!" As we burst into my parents' house 20 minutes late for Sunday dinner, I breathe in deep whiffs of my mom's spaghetti sauce, which, luckily for us, just gets better the longer it cooks.

Little Sweetie yanks her hand out of mine and toddles over to my dad, looking even more adorable than usual in her BB-8 costume. "Did you have fun at the zoo?" he asks.

Fish mouth. Fish mouth. Fish mouth. Her eyes bulge with excitement as her lips pop open and closed.

"Oh, did you see some fishies there?"


"Oh, and some turtles?"

"Burrrrrr!" She flaps her arms so hard I think she might actually lift herself off the ground. "Uh MOU!" She sticks out her tongue and then dramatically pokes her pointer finger into her wide-open mouth.

"Oh, Granddaddy," I interpret, giggling, "after we saw the fish and the turtles, we got to feed the birds in the Lorikeet Garden! They used their tongues to put our food in their mouths! It was so exciting!"
While we were there, I think she flapped her arms and squawked more than the birds did!

She may only be 17 months old, but she is already quite the storyteller!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
I forgot it was Tuesday. Writing day. Slice of Life day!

I don't feel like writing. I'm tired and stressed, and because I forgot what day it was, I forgot to be thinking about writing all day. I forgot to roll writing ideas around in my head as I showered, walked down the hallways, and drove to and from school. I forgot to notice the wispy, glittering hints of writing ideas half-hidden all around me. I forgot to start giving myself pep talks, to remind myself why I write, to sweep out the dark corners of my brain and make room for writing.

So, at 7:30, when I begrudgingly pull my laptop out of my bag and settle onto the couch, committed to keeping my assigned appointment with myself, I am not in a writing mood. I am like a kid staring down a pile of homework.

Strong Jennifer and Frazzled Jennifer start to argue:

If I don't write tonight, I'll have to tell my students next week that I didn't even come close to my goal... again!

But I don't have anything to write about...

Yes, yes I do! Dumb excuse! I have a whole list of writing ideas in Evernote!(scrolling through list of ideas)

  Nope. Not that one, too much work. Nope, not that one, not in the mood. Nope... Nope... Nope... None of these are any good. 

Oh hush, yes they are! There are so many great ideas in there!

Well, all the good ones are too much work. Or they don't match my mood right now.

How about a slice about not wanting to write?

But I've done those before! Who wants to read another one of those?!

Let's put a new twist on it! I can think of a new twist! Besides, they're great for showing kids!

But I'm so sleeeepy! We just finished the first nine weeks! I could take a break this week...

No! No more breaks! It's only part of one evening! There are plenty of other breaks in the week, and if I start writing only when I feel like it, I won't do it nearly enough! I'm forever telling kids how sometimes we have to work even when we don't feel like it! 

But, you know, that one extra stressy thing... IMPENDING DOOM! (gritted teeth and tightness in my neck, for extra drama)

Oh, come on, it's not even that bad. Just one dumb thing. It will almost certainly turn out better than I imagine. And not writing is not going to help. In fact, not writing will make me feel worse! 

Yeah, ok, I know, totally right. But... sleepiness! Snuggly couch! 

If I start right now, I'll have time to relax afterwards! And then I can really enjoy the relaxing, instead of feeling annoyed and guilty that I didn't write when I had the chance!

Oh fine. Here we go. I suppose we can do a new "I don't want to write" one...

(Fingers clicking.
Brain spinning.
Words flying.

See, that wasn't so bad, right? Actually pretty fun? And how about this proud, STRONG feeling?!

That's what I don't want to forget.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Tight shoulders, gritted teeth, buzzing brain. I slam my laptop shut with a little extra oomph and shove it into my bag, barely noticing the usually-calming texture of my case and decals. That email, rrrRRRR, seriously?!... I didn't get to write my plans on the board and tomorrow morning is collaboration time... Have to get those book reviews graded in time for the kids to make corrections... and grade those projects... Still haven't responded to that other email... So much to... "Ma-ma-ma!"

Little Sweetie tugs at my pants leg, peering up half-sideways with her signature grin. "Ok, are you ready to go buh-bye with Mommy? Let's go have some fun!" I take a deep breath, pick up my bag, and grab her warm little hand. Her tiny fingers cling to mine, and those once-pressing thoughts drift away like fog in sunshine. Her neon pink shoes patter on the tile beside me, stopping periodically to investigate open doorways, lockers, and fascinating spots on the floor.

"Are you ready to go to the zzzzzzzoo, since Meemaw had to drop you off early?" She stops, flips her eyes wide open, and does her best fish-mouth. "That's right! We can see the fishies!" I giggle, and she continues with her famous extended version of her favorite word: "Tur-tur-tle-tle!"

"Yeah, and the turtles! We can see the fishies and turtles at the zoo!" The language teacher in me is in constant awe of how huge her receptive vocabulary already is, especially now that she is really starting to be able to produce a wider range of words and gestures to communicate her understanding.

By the time we're driving up the road with the windows cracked and sunlight streaming through the moon roof, my shoulders have loosened and my jaw hangs in an easy smile. As we walk up to the distinctive yellow entrance with its towering sign, my mind empties and opens to take in all the zoo joy that awaits:

rich, creamy Black Cherry ice cream in a crisp waffle cone, and Sweetie's hysterical puckered face each time I give her a lick...

her spindly legs bouncing as she crouches to peep through the barn slats at the goats, stretching her little hand out to pet any that come close enough...

she sticks out her tongue and pants heavily (her signal for "dog") as the black bear waddles right up to the glass in its newly redesigned enclosure...

"Beehhhh!" she shrieks when we approach the polar bear, who lazily lounges by his pool...

her tiny finger curls and straightens at each new habitat, then her little hand opens into a floppy wave as I name each animal for her...

her toothy grin as she pats, then slaps, then hugs the baby polar bear statue on the arctic playground...

she toddles up to the small blue slides, unsteadily sets herself down at the top, slowly hangs her legs down, grins, sticks her tongue out, and slides herself down like a very big girl, no longer needing Mommy to hold her like she did this summer...

and, best of all, her squealing, cackling, shrieking windmill of writhing legs and flailing arms each time the cougar paces past her, the beaver dives in front of her, or a flock of sparrows flutters by us on the path.

Pure delight. So much joy. The perfect reset to my day.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Joy, love, and strength

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Let's watch Mommy now!" The little blonde girl tugs at her toddling brother's hand as their mom lines up in the lane beside me. "Ok honey," her husband mutters in her ear, "let's see what you've got left: one more lap!" She takes off like a tightly coiled spring let loose: smooth and powerful.

She doesn't look like a mom. She looks like a runner.

I'm halfway through my run, and this family has been my adorable entertainment since I got to the track. I've seen both parents run serious laps, the dad run with the little girl, the mom push the toddler in the jogging stroller, the boy toddle along beside the mom, and both kids run/toddle behind the dad. Together, they absolutely exude joy, love, and strength.

"Go, Mommy, go!" Over my shoulder, the girl and boy are jumping up and down as their mom rounds the last curve. "You can do it! Just a little farther! GO MOMMY!!!"

Little Sweetie is at home in bed, but I hear her little voice in my head and run a little harder. In a few years, that could be her, watching and cheering for me, knowing that her mommy works hard to be strong. Knowing that she is part of a family who treasures joy, love, and strength.

I pound down the straightaway and head into my last two laps, watching Blond Runner Family pack themselves into their SUV. Their giggles fade into the lengthening shadows and the track fills with its usual serenity. I let my mind drift open and absorb everything I love about running outside.

Bright white lines cut cleanly through the soft murkiness of dusk. Tree silhouettes stand like giant heads of broccoli against the fiery brushstrokes of sunset. Crickets and cicadas trill soaring songs that rise and fall against the stillness. A refreshing breeze swishes across my skin, chilling the beaded drops of sweat before they can run into the rivulets of summer. And in my pumping legs and arms, tight muscles strain to learn new strength.

As the shadows threaten to overtake the red rubber entirely, I push my shoulders back and kick it around the last turn. I just have to grin as my legs and arms launch me towards the finish line. Look at me! I've come so far! The unassuming middle school bleachers are empty, but cheers ring in my head. Go Mommy! 

Little Sweetie will be watching, and she will know joy, love, and strength.
She already loves to look up to me!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Science, too!

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
If you would have asked me ten years ago where I'd be today, this would not be it. It's the middle of 6th period, and I'm suddenly having one of those random moments of acute self-awareness, as if I'm floating above myself, watching a scene unfold while also acting in it.

My small group of students is huddled around me on one side of the biology lab: two Muslim boys, a Korean boy, a Chinese girl and boy, and three Muslim girls in hijab. As we work together to scrutinize cell diagrams, I hear myself saying things like, "Remember, cells with a nucleus are eukaryotic..." Look at me, teaching science, haha!

"Ok, 5c: 'Based on your answer to the previous question, what can you infer about the cells without this structure?'... This question wants us to use our answer from 5b to make a guess. We said the flagellum, that little tail, helps the cell move..." If my engineer dad, who can't picture what I do in my science push-ins, walked in here right now and saw me pointing to a cell diagram with one hand while waving my other hand behind my rear end like a little swishing fish tail, he would die laughing... "So what can we guess about the cells that don't have one?"

I like this activity. My kids are getting it! At first glance, I didn't think it would be helpful. Too wordy, too boring, another packet in the Sea of Too Many Worksheets otherwise known as high school. But upon closer inspection, the diagrams were clear and well-labeled, and the questions (once we decoded their academic language together) were carefully targeted to help us closely read the diagrams to learn the most important characteristics of each type of cell.

I seriously love teaching. I feel like skipping down the hallway. We are making such a difference!

Before my colleague and I pushed into content classes, our ELLs spent most of their day drifting, lost, silent. In their own ways, our colleagues were just as lost, feeling like they had no idea what to do with kids who didn't speak English.

Now, I spend two periods of my day in science class, right there to support everyone, and I love it. I love seeing my kids fully engaged with rigorous academic content. I love working with my awesome science colleagues to design and implement more linguistically appropriate activities and assessments to enable that engagement. We still have so much work to do, but I truly believe we are on the right track.

Most of all, I love moments like one of my favorite snapshots from this fall, when a "regular American" freshman, frantically looking for one of my colleagues in the hallway, saw me and exclaimed, "Hey! You're my science teacher, too!"

"That's right! What do you need?" My grin stretched so much wider than his. I'm your science teacher, too! 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

After all

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Hi :-) Mrs. M teacher! :-)" As I settled into my chair to check my morning emails, my eyes flicked from the subject line to the Korean characters in the "sent" column to the English version of the name beside them. Oh my gosh. It's K.

K, who used to be standing outside my classroom door every morning when I got to school, shoulders slumped in and long bangs combed purposefully across his eyes, hiding from the world. K, who scrawled a mixture of astute explanations (often accompanied by impressive diagrams to compensate for his limited English) and heavy-handed, repetitive "I hate..." statements. K, whose monsters would scare him so far into himself that he'd shut down completely, a little ball of lanky teenaged boy over by the window. K, who would then suddenly just let loose in a stream of hesitant-but-perceptive questions and reflections, pouring out his battles in halting beginner English for 20 or 30 minutes after class or before school the next day.

Identifying his triggers. Figuring out coping strategies that might work. The same anxious questions over and over again. Fighting his brain and feeling so frustrated and discouraged by what was "wrong" with him. Apologizing for disappointing me and sweetly thanking me for my help. Creating fascinating analogies, like comparing his energy to a phone battery that ran lower as the week went on, but could be "recharged" by help from his support system at school. Such insight in the midst of such overwhelming challenges.

K, who was suddenly just gone. Withdrawn from school one day last fall and sent back to Korea after an awful incident at home. Just like that. All the hours of listening and talking, of hooking him up with other supports, of keeping in close communication with those team members and wracking our brains to come up with innovative ideas to help him be successful... gone. We didn't even get to say goodbye.

Hours of work off of our plates, but it didn't feel good at all. Just when we were starting to get a really good support system in place, just when we were really feeling good about what we were doing to help him... he was gone. Ripped away from all those new supports. We didn't even get to try the check-in form that I'd worked so hard to make for him. My whole body seemed to be trying to tie itself in knots as I signed his withdrawal paperwork. What would ever happen to him, starting over in Korea?

And here he was, after all this time, right in my inbox this morning. Nothing in the body of the email, just that greeting in the subject line. But it was him. Alive, presumably not in jail or in a hospital, and emailing me to say hi with cute little emoji smiles. Tears spurted from my eyes as I restrained myself from replying IN ALL CAPS! "K, I'm so glad to hear from you!!!"

And later today, in his reply back, this sentence that tugged my heart right back to all those arduous-but-profound conversations: "Thank you for letting thoughts."

We didn't save him. We didn't get him close to graduation. We couldn't even help him avoid blowing up that weekend last fall. But he remembers my classroom as a safe place, and he remembers me as someone who cares. I must be doing a pretty good job, after all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Tuesdays at TWT!
"It's so empty in here!" I scrunch up my face as the newly blank cabinets, walls, and counters of the copy room strike me like a slap.

"Yeah, they worked really hard to get it cleaned up!" The secretary making copies can't see my face. "Isn't it nice?"

"No! I hate blank rooms! They're unfriendly!" I laugh. "That's why my room looks like an elementary school room. I want it to be home-y!"

Actually, I want it to be more than home-y. I want it to be home. And at the start of every new year, love spills out of my heart and flows around those tables and up onto those walls as I implement new tweaks to make it home-ier. As I work, I see shadows of kids huddled in groups, curled up in corners, and gathered in the meeting area: happy, comfortable, determined, enthusiastic, safe.

I've worked hard to create a variety of functional, comfortable learning zones!
Every year, I'm able to optimize our space for learning a little more. This year's improvements include re-arranging to create space for another small group table, adding bigger supply caddies on all the tables, and improving our schedule and learning target displays.
Cards on the schedule board
will help students know where
they should sit during each activity.
Below the calendar display,
a clearer display of specific targets
that are our focus for the day.


Color-coded ongoing learning targets will be added to this board
 as we go, since we will build on most throughout the year.
Fidget toys, activity books, and tip sheets
to help manage stress & difficult emotions!
And because my room does become their safe place in the midst of so many struggles, I'm adding a calm-down zone near the reading corner. You can't even begin to reach all those standards I'm throwing at you if your brain is stuck at high alarm!

"You will learn. You will grow. You will find your joy, peace, and strength. And you will know that I love you." As I staple, scoot, organize, and plan, I hum and talk to the shadow-kids that float in front of my dreamer eyes.

Tomorrow, those mind-shadows will crystalize into real kids, and I will start the hard work of stitching classes into families. Today, this home-y space that will become their home is ready, and it is waiting to welcome them.