Monday, March 19, 2018

Sweet love

Day 19 of 31 at TWT!
"Do you see what this is?" I hold my phone up so Sweetie can see the picture that has appeared in my Facebook memories for today.

"You!" she squeals.

"Yeah, and what's this?" I point to the middle of the picture.

"A butterfly!" she giggles.

"That's right! See how my belly was big? This is when you lived in my belly! We went to a butterfly house, and a butterfly decided it wanted to meet you, so it landed right on my belly!"

"It wanted to kiss me!" She shrieks, brilliant blue eyes lighting up as she brings both fists up near her cheeks.

"Aw, that's right! It wanted to kiss and snuggle you!" That was the moment I was sure you were going to be something truly special.

"Can I send it 'mojis?"

"What?" I'm not sure if I heard her right.

"Can I send it 'mojis?"

"Oh, umm, no... you can't send emojis to the butterfly." Sparks fly above her head as Husband and I twinkle our eyes at each other, trying to contain our laughter.

"Why I can't type 'mojis to it?"

"Well, it's just a picture..." I sputter, "... and butterflies don't have phones!" And it's probably dead, since this was 3 years ago and I butterflies probably don't live that long! I can't hold back the giggling anymore, so I just let myself laugh and rub her sweet little back. "If you could text the butterfly, what would you say?"

"I love it." Her already-sweet voice takes on the serenely sugary tone she reserves for moments like this.

"Awww, that's so nice!" I lean forward, gaze into those cerulean eyes, and rub my nose against hers. "You're very cute."

"Can I say that?" she leans toward my phone.

"What? Um, sure! You want to say that to the butterfly? Ok..." My eyes dance across at Husband's again as I hold the phone closer to her.

"I don't see the microphone." She switches to her imperial commanding tone and points at the corner of the screen, where the dictation microphone appears if you are texting someone. (She loves sending voice messages to Daddy and Meemaw.) It isn't there, of course, because we are not. actually. texting. the butterfly. from 3 years ago.

"Oh, Sweetie, remember, we can't text the butterfly! It's just a picture!" She's the sweetest thing in the world. How can we pretend to do this? "I know! What if Daddy gets out his phone and takes a video of you telling the butterfly that you love it?" Bonus: we'll have captured this adorableness forever.

"Ok!" She flashes her toothy grin.

I hold my phone with the picture close to her while Husband records the moment with his phone. "What do you want to say to the butterfly?"

"I love him!" She squeezes her little fists so hard her arms shake. "I love you, Butterfly!"

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Unexpected delight

Day 18 of 31 at TWT!
"When I started my shift, I was actually walking behind you guys out of the parking garage, and I thought, 'I bet I'll end up being their server!'" With twinkling eyes, our waiter flashes an open-mouthed smile and reaches out with a tattoo-covered arm to set a little plate of carrots & ranch in front of Sweetie.

Wow! Carrots as soon as we sit down? A sticker when we walked in? This place is awesome! I'd been a little apprehensive bringing a toddler to a new brewery on St. Patrick's Day: would it be crazy? Would they think we were crazy? Apparently, there was not only no need to worry, but we should have come here months ago!

I zone out as he recites the drink specials and which ones can be made green, watching Sweetie mow down carrots like a little machine. "Ok, tell him what you want to drink," I prod her.

"Milk!" she beams up at him proudly.

"I can make that green, if you want!" He grins and winks at her.

"Ooh! Do you want GREEN milk for St. Patrick's Day?!" I lean close and bop her nose with mine. This place is amazing!!! Since our town decided to have its celebration last Saturday for some weird reason, I was afraid we wouldn't really get to celebrate today other than wearing green clothes. So glad I didn't talk myself out of coming here! 

"Yeah!!! Green milk!"
What fun! Maybe I should've gotten milk too... that wouldn't be weird with a toddler with me as an excuse, right? Maybe next year?
I pour over the lengthy kids' menu and start reading out all of things she might like: "They have a burger, grilled cheese, mini corn dogs, quesadilla, fish, pasta with red sauce, mac & cheese, or pizza!"

"Mac & cheese!" Of course, but at least there is a huge variety!

The waiter offers to put in Sweetie's order right away, while we're still perusing the rest of the menu. I've been so dazzled by our experience so far that I've barely started figuring out what I want. Husband ends up getting a burger that has corned beef on top and a pretzel bun, and I go for the fish & chips. "We might have to come here every year on St. Patrick's Day!" I chirp.

Periodic glances at my phone show me that we've timed it perfectly for the main reason we came. Sure enough, as we finish up a "skillet brownie", cheers go up from near the door. I swoop Sweetie out of the booth and scurry down toward the corner by the door, where I can see them: a little troupe of Irish dancers!

There's not much room, but we sneak up to the edge of the first table and kneel down so we don't block that couple's view. "Dancers!" Delight spreads across Sweetie's face and her already-bright eyes widen as they begin stomping and bouncing.

"You can clap!" I nudge, and her little hands come together.
Mesmerized! <3
Over at the bar, people grin down at her enthralled face, elbowing their friends to point out her joy. One of the hostesses comes over to give her an extra bead necklace. They don't even know that ever since the Irish Festival in August, we've had to listen to Irish music in the car every day!

Pounding feet and graceful, nimble legs fly in front of us, but I'm concentrating on the sweet little body leaning against my shoulder, timidly clapping her sticky hands and staring, transfixed.

Finally, as the third or fourth song winds down, she beams up at me. "Can we invite Daddy?"

We go running back to the table, and he's just finished paying the bill. "Daddy!!! Come see the Irish dancers!!!" she squeals, and pulls him back toward the clamor.

Friday, March 16, 2018

A brave new thing

Day 16 of 31 at TWT!
"How do you envision your classroom culture? On the best days, what does it feel like?"

It's late in the afternoon on the day before winter break, but my brain is on fire.

I'm tired of seeing kids flounder because they don't have the necessary academic skills to be successful. I've stepped up my work with goal-setting and reflection every year, and something is still missing. More kids with more problematic backgrounds are muddling their way through school, weighed down by innumerable challenges combined with a concerning lack of work ethic.

Sparks that have been smoldering through months of Tuesday morning R-Factor sessions are blazing bright as I sit in my new colleague's office, furiously typing a blend of notes and my own fluttering ideas.

"I want it to be like a family, where we're all working together to learn and grow. I hope my kids could all tell you our motto is 'Be Your Best Self'," I answer him.

"When it feels that way, what's happening?"

I try to describe my favorite times of the year: Global Cafe, the March Challenge, some of our goal-setting and reflection work. I wish he knew my teaching better... this is not what I came here to talk about. I'm a little annoyed to be finding myself trying to prove that I'm a good teacher. I work so hard to create so many authentic learning experiences, and the kids respond well to them. But it's not good enough!

"How many of your kids do you think are actively working to be the best version of themselves?"

I start counting on my fingers, naming them in my head. "Um, like 20%?"

"That's pretty good! Better than 10-80-10!"

Yeah, but it's more like 20-60-20, or even worse on the bottom end too... I want so badly to make more of a difference, to find a way to reach those struggling kids better. And to not have them ruin things for everyone else!

"How can you leverage them to lift everyone else?" He tells me how Urban Meyer stopped letting one of his hardest working linemen come in to lift weights early in the morning until he brought a teammate with him. "What if you created groups in your classes, with your elite kids as group leaders? The power of the unit?"

Ummm. That sounds like a daunting shift. But I really want to truly create that classroom family focused on learning and mutual support that I've always dreamed of. Something starts to awaken in the part of me that was a five-year member of The Best Damn Band in the Land.

By the time pretty much everyone else in the building has zoomed off to enjoy their breaks, he's convinced me to try it. A Brave New Thing. I will dig back out my TBDBITL squad leader self and implement a "squad" group structure in my classroom. My hardest-working students will be MY "squad leaders", responsible for leading and inspiring their classmates.

As I spend winter break wrangling a toddler and grading exams, my brain is spinning. I haven't been this pumped up since I was head squad leader of my row my last year in band. I get my head into gear, knowing that our class culture is fully my responsibility, and I need to establish the line better and hold it better. I am determined to RISE and take my kids with me.

I come back from break, begin typing a frighteningly long email to my colleague with way too many questions and thoughts, delete it, and ask instead if we can check in soon. We get snowed out. I almost talk myself out of rescheduling because I'm afraid to take up more of his time. I pour over his R-Factor slides and his notes from Urban Meyer's Above the Line, order the book even though I've always been way too loyal to Jim Tressel to be much of a Meyer fan, and end up devouring it in less than a week once it arrives.

I choose my squad leaders and approach them individually, explaining what I want to try, why I've picked them, and what their responsibilities would be. 2 of the 9, natural leaders in the traditional sense, are excited, honored, and raring to go. The other 7, the kind of quietly hardworking students who sneak through their school day being awesome without sticking out, look at me like I'm completely insane, shake their heads, and try to refuse, firmly convinced that they won't be good enough. "Come on," I cajole. "You can do this!" I talk about leading by example and explain how I was fairly shy and timid, and how I never would have taken on leadership roles that eventually lead me to teaching if people hadn't believed in me. "It'll be good for you." After varying amounts of gentle nudging, they all agree to give it a try.

I plan to pull them all in for a meeting one morning before school with doughnuts. We get snowed out. I scramble to grab them the next day during homeroom instead, feed them the day-old doughnuts, give them my best TBDBITL-esque speech, and introduce the idea to my whole classes later that day. It's hard. There's heavy resistance from the bottom. The middle are disappointed to lose their comfort. The squad leaders need training. I have to create all kinds of new materials to get it all going. Two weeks into the new semester, I'm running on empty and winter break is a distant memory.

But something amazing is happening. And my classroom, my kids, and I will never be the same again.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Day 15 of 31 at TWT!
"Mrs. M, I loved your post about your daughter with the stickers!"

"Oh yeah, I read that one too! She's so cute!" D. chimes in. "I remember she was so sweet at the Global Cafe!"

"Yeah, we're pretty much covered in stickers by dinnertime most evenings!" I giggle. I love that my kids are really reading my posts this year! 

I talk about my writing with my students all the time, I write in front of them, and I sometimes use my posts as mentor texts in class, but I've never had this many students independently visit my blog, even though I've linked here on our class blog during past March Challenges as well. This year, as I weave through the room during the time I give my students to leave comments, I've been frequently spying the familiar sunset background of my blog up on at least one or two screens.

Maybe it's that commenting has finally taken hold this year the way I've always wanted it to. Maybe it's that our new squad group format (which I seriously promise, again, to write more about soon!) and refined goal work have intensely strengthened the feeling that we are all learners working together to live our class motto of "being our best selves".

(Last week, after sharing how I hadn't met my weekly reading goal, one of my students remarked, "Wait, teachers have learning goals too?"As I started to wonder where he'd been all the other days and weeks I've modeled talking about my goals, another student jumped in: "Mrs. M always works on what we're working on!" Looking back, while the first student isn't exactly known for his stellar attention, I wonder if all that modeling just hadn't seemed as real until he noticed that I was sharing about NOT reaching a goal.)

Maybe living through my personal struggles this fall right in front my students helped them view me more as someone who works hard to persevere through obstacles, just like them.

Maybe this group of students would have just been particularly invested in the March Challenge anyway. But I'd like to think that some of that other work has made a difference. Regardless, it's really fun to see them reading and responding to my posts as a fellow writer and fellow member of our class community.

This morning, when I logged into our class blog to approve comments, this sweet one was waiting for me on the post where I link to my posts here, in response to yesterday's reflection on writing and running, and identity:
Don't you just love that she's encouraging me and giving me advice? She's one of my squad leaders, and I just chose her for our school's special "Celebration of Excellence" award. See why? She has been a major turning point in our class.
"You are one of my biggest examples in life, therefore I believe if you could do something I could do something as you do!" Her words echo in my head.

This is why I teach. This is why I write. This is why I share my reader-writer-learner self-who-is-working-to-get-better with my students.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Writer! Runner?

Day 13 of 31 at TWT!
Some of you know that I've been trying to be a runner. Or, if I'm using the same logic that Stacey Shubitz taught us years ago about being writers, I suppose I AM a runner. If a writer is a person who writes (as opposed to a "real" published writer), then a runner is a person who runs, right? And I run three times a week. Not particularly fast, and not particularly far, but I run.

I'm not sure why I can so easily call myself a writer but find it so hard to try on the identity of "runner".

Partly, it feels like I should be good at something in order to own that title. I know I'm good at writing. I've gotten feedback throughout my life that I'm good at writing in a variety of situations, so I know other people also believe I'm good at writing. Therefore, I'm a writer.

I'm not particularly good at running, although I'm not overly bad either. (In fact, I've even gotten encouraging feedback that I run like a runner!) But with running, I feel like I need to achieve some sort of objective accomplishment to claim the title of "runner". If I can run an __-minute mile, I'll be a real runner. If I I can run a 5K someday, I'll be a real runner. Right? Yet, I don't feel like I need to publish a book to call myself a writer. I don't tell myself that because I "only" write blog posts, I'm not a writer. I don't believe there's some sort of objective number of posts per week that I have to write in order to be a writer.

I don't do that with any other title I claim. I don't feel like I'm not a reader if I don't read a certain amount of pages every week. No matter what, I'm a marching band girl, even though the most we've participated in the Alumni Band lately is a couple of parades.

Ultimately, I think the difference is that writing has felt like a piece of my heart for so long that it really is an integral part of who I am. I pretty much can't not write. As long as I can remember, I've kept a notepad by my bed for those times when I wake up in the middle of the night with a burning idea that I JUST HAVE TO WRITE, right then. I often decide to write "just a short post" and find myself coming up for air an hour and a half later, shaking myself back into the real world like I've been in some kind of haze. I've always been a writer.

This running thing is new. It doesn't pull at my heart like writing does. I certainly don't wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden urge to go running! Sometimes, I look ahead and think, "Ugh, I have to run again tomorrow." But even as I think that, I'll flex my muscles and feel a slight pulse, like my legs and arms are saying, "Let's go!" I'll feel a little tightness in my muscles or notice them getting stronger and more defined, and I'll stand up a little straighter and walk with a little more pride, wishing I was wearing a sign that said "I'M A RUNNER NOW!" so everyone could see the small differences I feel. I'll start to feel bogged down with the stress of school and life and my thoughts will shift to, "Oh good, I'm running tomorrow!" as I anticipate that glorious clear-headed floating feeling that's an added bonus to just plain running the knots out.

So I suppose it pulls at my heart, but differently. I have to make myself run... but I sometimes have to make myself write, too! That just means it's hard, not that it's not part of who I am. It's a newer part of who I am, but I watch students become readers and writers in my class every year, and I don't discount their new identities. If I feel moved to write poetry about it, it has absolutely taken hold in my heart.

I write. I am a writer. I run. I am a runner.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Bouncing bee-boppers

Day 10 of 31 at TWT!
"Do you remember what we're going to do today?" It's 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday and a small person has scampered into our room, but I don't quite mind today.

A wider grin slowly creeps across Sweetie's face and she raises her eyebrows in expectation. "Go to the pancake breakfast!"

"That's right! And what will we do at the pancake breakfast?"

"Eat green syrup! With Granddaddy! I love Granddaddy!"

We choose our greenest clothes, bead necklaces, and "bee-boppers", grab warm coats and blankets for the parade, put on Irish songs in the car, and head down to my old middle school. "This was Mommy's school in two ways: Mommy was a student here and a teacher here!" So many memories always hit me when we walk through those doors, but today is really all about family traditions.

Oh boy, green syrup!
The breakfast is put on by the Lion's Club, so there's always a friendly lion!
She loves Irish songs so much I had to download a bunch after the Irish Festival this summer!
"A great big hat!"
What's coming now?
"Look, Granddaddy!"
"What was your favorite thing?" "The dragon!!!"
I've loved our town's St. Patrick's celebration for longer than I can remember, but it's so much sweeter to share it with a pair of bouncing bee-boppers on a little blonde head!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Stepping out of the past

Day 9 of 31 at TWT!
"I remember this room!" A cheerful voice from behind my shoulder pulls me out of responding to student work.

Spinning my chair around, I have to blink to make sure my eyes are really seeing what they thought they saw: I am greeted by an almost-ghost: one of my former students from nearly 6 years ago, my first year teaching ELLs. "Oh my gosh! How ARE you?!" His first name pops into my head almost instantly, but I don't want to mess up, and my brain is spinning excessively, so I hold off for a minute as I scan him to figure out what on earth he's doing here.

"I'm working as an interpreter now! I had a meeting here, and I figured I'd stop by!" Taller, skinnier, exuding more confidence and insight than I ever would have imagined back then... but that slightly ornery twinkle is still hiding in the corner of his eye.

I wasn't sure this kid would make it. He was so sweet, but would barely do any work. He failed the last quarter of my class that year, and you have to try pretty darn hard to fail my class. The next fall, I found out he'd moved out of state over the summer, and I figured that was it. Now, here he was, all grown up into a young man with an agency interpreter ID badge around his neck. Did he really make it through high school?

"So you're back around here? I remember you'd moved to Georgia, right? How do you like being back?"

He talks enthusiastically about his interpreter job, then explains that he's been back here for just a few months and just started working at a local restaurant with another of my former students. "She said you come there a lot, so I knew you were still here, and after my meeting, I thought I'd see if you were down here!"

"I'm so glad you stopped in, R.!" I slip in his name now to make sure he knows I remember. How do I gently find out what I really want to know? "So, are you taking classes or anything?"

He sighs. "I actually dropped out of high school down there. I made it to my junior year, but money was tight, and I had to choose between school and work... I chose work. Besides, I was failing. I didn't want to do any schoolwork." Yep, that's the kid I was worried about. "You know, here, I felt like I had teachers pushing me to keep going. But down there, nobody cared. If I wanted to just sit in class and sleep, that was my choice, they told me."

"I'm sorry, R." If he would have stayed here, would we have gotten him through? I'm trying to reconcile that struggling kid with the mature young man standing in front of me. "But you've obviously have made some good choices to get yourself to where you are now!"

"Everything was so expensive there! My brother and I were working two construction jobs, and there still wasn't enough at the end of the month. So I came back here, and now I have my own apartment, and I'm doing mostly medical interpreting. I'm trying to study these manuals with only a 10th-grade education. But I really like it. These people, their stories are always different. The reason they call is the same, but what led to their need is always something different!"

His brother... "That's great! I'm so proud of you! How is G., anyway?"

His smile disappears. "You're not going to like this..." he looks sideways. "He turned into a drug addict. He's got all these tattoos all over now. If you saw him, you wouldn't even recognize him."

I put my hand over my mouth. "Oh, R! I'm so sorry." Out of the two of them, I thought his brother was the one who'd end up being successful. He had his rough spots, but he seemed so much more driven.

"I'm the only one who came back. My mom and everyone else are still down there. It's hard, because I'm alone, but I'm getting along."

My heart is starting to shred itself. That chubby, ornery kid, all grown up by things too hard to bear, doing his very best in spite of it all. One of my colleagues is at the door, waiting to update me on a new student, so I have to say goodbye to this almost-ghost from a past that seems very long ago to me, but probably so much longer ago to him. "I'm so glad you stopped by. You should be so proud of everything you're doing. I'll see you at the restaurant sometime soon!"

The rest of the night, I keep remembering snippets that year: him asking if I liked "kids like [them]",  discovering that "reading a book is just like watching TV", joking and making our class more fun. Me diving into the world of ELL, shocked at how hard our students work just to get by, frustrated by just how daunting this job is, amazed at their resilience through unspeakable challenges, and trying to establish myself as a teacher of readers and writers. I've grown so much as a teacher since then, but some things never change: it's kids like him who are really teaching me.