Tuesday, January 6, 2015

One Little Word 2015: Love

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Except in kindergarten, when I made a New Year's Resolution to stop sucking my thumb, resolutions were never really my thing.

But when the amazing community of teacher-writers at Two Writing Teachers introduced me to the concept of choosing One Little Word for the year, I was immediately intrigued and excited. After all, I love words! And I'm easily overwhelmed. Choosing just one word to guide me through the year seemed manageable and encouraging: one word to center me and help me focus. One beacon, one light, one anchor.

In 2012, I chose to CONNECT more deeply.
In 2013, I filled my year with DELIGHT.
And last year, I strove to be a SPARK.

Those little words took me on incredible journeys. Every year, I'm astonished at just how often my word pops into my daily life.

The word that has found me this year may seem overly simple and obvious, but I believe it's a word we really don't use often enough or in the right ways.

I made this year's visual with the Drawing Desk app. Fun!
This year, I want to fill my life with a focus on LOVE... and I don't mean the sappy romantic kind, but the kind described in 1 Corinthians 16:14 --
"Do everything with love."

So yes, I'll center myself with LOVE for my sweet husband, in little and big ways. I'll savor LOVE for my wonderful parents, who are so much fun. And I'll explore a whole new kind of LOVE for the tiny human being who's miraculously growing inside me!

But I'll also strive to give more LOVE to my precious friends by spending more time with them and showing them how much I appreciate and treasure them.

I'll remind myself to ensure that no matter what else my students take from my classes, they remember that I LOVE them. Their tears, conversations, and writing this fall around our read aloud of One for the Murphys were a wallop right to my heart: kids just want to be loved. Even the big ones. Especially the tough ones. So I'll do my best to make them readers, writers, and thinkers, but I'll also do my best to make sure that in the midst of testing, rigor, grades, and credits, they know, deep down, that they are loved.

And as I wade through the shadows of modern education
that attempt to snatch my attention
from loving those kids,
those friends, and those family members...
and as Husband and I navigate 
the astonishing, breathtaking, 
formidable new path
 that stretches in front of us...

I'll seek to focus on the things I LOVE most:

small moments,
 special connections,
everyday magic.

I can't wait to see where this year of LOVE takes us!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

For their whole lives

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"I'm trying not to cry..." she kept repeating, snapping pictures of my classroom on the last day before break. Her last day of school in America. "I love this room." 

"Well, I try really hard to make it a happy, comfortable place for my students..."

"I know! Your class taught me that I could enjoy reading, that I could lose myself inside a book. One For the Murphys was the first time I ever felt like I was inside a story, like the people were real. When we finished it, I was like... but where are the Murphys?! That's why I kept accidentally calling you Mrs. Murphy... They seemed so real!" She giggled.

"That's one of my favorite things about a great story -- when the characters become so real to you that they become part of your life! And wasn't it fun to share that story together?" Scenes from this year's Global Read Aloud flashed through my mind: Shoulders tilted forward, faces hanging on every word. Intense scribbling in silence. Animated discussions. Wide-eyed wonder at receiving blog comments from Lynda Mullaly Hunt herself. Watery eyes and lots of blinking... even from tough teenage boys who don't think they're readers. Once again, magic.

"I've been reading at home every day now, and my dad is so happy. That's something I'll have for my whole life! Even though I have to leave your class, now I know I can enjoy reading."

It was one of those rare moments teachers dream of but rarely get: a reminder that yes, it's all worth it. The long hours and crazy mandates and the strain of having to carefully consider one million different things at the same time, without every being able to turn our brains off. It's all worth it for the chance to make a difference in so many precious lives. 

I hope she's right, that she'll always carry this spark with her. That she won't lose it in the midst of moving back to India and school and life. Or if she does, that something will remind her of the Murphys someday and she'll find it again. 

Because that's what I want for all of my kids: the ones who've become avid readers and the ones who are still looking around the room, getting a tissue, and watching the clock. The ones who remember loving reading when they were little kids and the ones who'd never read a book before they came into my class (either because they'd fake-read their way through years of bouncing around schools, because nobody reads for fun in the country they came from, or because they were busy just trying to survive violence and misery). 

I want them all to discover the magic and power of reading. I want them to know that they can find their life or escape from it in a book. I want them to be blown away by new ideas and aware of important issues. I want them to realize, like our favorite character Carley, that they are worth something and they can build lives of meaning and purpose.

And I want them to carry those SPARKS for their whole lives.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What it takes

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
A box of lefts, left flank, into a box of rights, right flank, into a box of right 270 spin turns... I stared across the parched grass as I visualized the drill. Furrowing my eyebrows, I began to march with a running checklist in my head: horn perfectly straight, legs up, toes pointed, shoulders back, eyes forward, don't tilt my head before the flank, don't dip my horn after the flash...

I'd been working for this for over two years now. Ever since I'd been lucky enough to stand mere feet away from The Ohio State University Marching Band's majestic rendition of the Navy Hymn on the floor of Skull Session, I had to wear those crossbelts and spats someday, gripping a spotless horn with military precision. It didn't matter that I'd have to master a brass instrument in just a few years. It didn't matter that I'd never excelled at anything requiring the least bit of physical coordination. I already loved my high school marching band experience, and I knew, without a doubt, that this would be my niche in college. I was going to be in that band.

The one time my mom had made me ask my high school band director a question, I'd put it off for days. So when I actually mustered the courage to initiate a conversation with the man who petrified me to the point that I only wore white and gray shirts during marching band season (because who wants to be pointed out as "the flute in the red shirt" through a bullhorn?!), my parents knew I was serious.

I'd only ever practiced my flute enough to get by, but I worked tirelessly between my weekly private lessons to learn the mellophone. To the amusement of current veteran band members, I showed up a year early at the band's optional summer marching clinics, practically bouncing with excitement. After that whole extra summer practicing my horn flashes over and over on local school football fields, I could finally do them fluidly and quickly. Now, I loved the surge of power I felt each time I threw my head back and slammed my horn back down, returning it to its precise straight position in milliseconds.

My time was finally here, and I was ready. At the end of the summer, I would finally have the chance to make my dream come true.

Every morning, I went to my high school marching band field to march. For two hours, I made up simple and complex drills, practicing every fundamental in order. In-place movements, flanks, step-kicks and swaggers. Sloopy, Ramp, and school songs up and down the field. Two hours every day of discipline, precision, and intense concentration. Days of summer sun beating down on dry grass and well-worn yardline ruts. Weeks of pretending not to notice the curious eyes of passing pedestrians and honking motorists. Months of sweat pouring down every inch of my persistent body.

Hours, days, weeks, and months of courage and tenacity: that's what it took to put on those crossbelts for five years of glorious autumn Saturdays. And for five years, reality far surpassed that long-ago dream.
My 5th year. As Squad Leader of my row, I'm on this end.

(Our class motto this year is "Be your best self!" My students have been writing stories recalling when they've been their best selves, and this was the story I wrote alongside them. They'd love your comments too!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Piles of paperwork are heaped in my corner of the counter. Supplies are scattered across my desk as if a tiny tornado just swept across it. Embarrassing heaps of books that never got stamped wait impatiently inside cupboards, hiding until they are ready for eager hands to explore them.

Every time I cross an item off my list, I write down three more below it.

"Are you ready?" everyone asks. "No," I cheerfully reply, "but I'm excited!"

All across town, backpacks are being filled, lunches are being packed, and alarms are being set. Stomachs flutter and eyes struggle to go to sleep so early. But are they excited too?

All it takes is one little spark. (Love that I named that post last fall before I chose my OLW this year!) One little gesture to show them that you care. One little note to remind them how words can connect us. One little card to open up the world and show them that learning is fun.

Vacation postcards from Georgia ready to be mailed last week!
Over the weekend, I got this email from a student:

(Remember, I get the pleasure of having many of my students for several years!)

So yes, I actually am ready. Ready for old smiles and new connections. Ready for hugs, laughter, tears, and stories. Ready to build communities. Ready to grow and learn together.

It will be hard, but it will be worth it. Another amazing year begins tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Telling her story

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Last night, sleep wavered just out of reach.

Somehow, M. had popped into my head, and I found myself wondering about her: How's she doing? Is she still working toward a diploma equivalent? Is her daughter doing better?

Is there anything I could have done? 

Gosh, I would have loved to see her in a cap and gown.

WHY didn't anyone tell me they were going to withdraw her until it was already done?

Now I was getting more awake instead of more asleep. Back in April, I lost hours of sleep this way.


M.'s attendance had been slightly more sporadic than usual this spring, but I knew she had a lot going on. Yes, she'd sometimes give herself a little extra wiggle room to go out to breakfast or sleep in, but I couldn't imagine working two jobs and taking care of a two-year-old... AND navigating high school... in a second language. She deserved a little personal time now and then!

Besides, she was usually at school in time for my class, and she was doing wonderful work! She'd really found herself as a writer this year, and I always looked forward to her rich, wrenching descriptions.

I knew she was really having trouble in math, but she was working so hard to catch up...


That first Friday in April, one of the guidance counselors caught me in the office. "I think something's going to happen with M."

The exhilaration of the incredible field trip we'd just taken turned to stone in my stomach. School and district administration had threatened to withdraw her all year if her attendance didn't improve, but threats seem like bluffs when they go on too long. They weren't actually going to do it now, were they?

I tore around the corner to find my principal, but he was gone. That's ok, I'll catch him on Monday, I thought as I settled down to check emails, but returned to full panic mode when I saw the attendance list. A little note beside M.'s name said "Will be withdrawn."


Did they know everything that was going on with her? She was at a doctor's appointment today, and so many other days lately! Oh, why couldn't she just play the game and bring excusal notes?! We'd told her so many times...

Why hadn't they talked to me? They couldn't know everything that was going on with her. Did they know about her mom's stroke and her uncle's sudden death last year, her other uncle's death from cancer this fall, her daughter's recent hospitalization? Did they know she'd recently started going to a professional counselor? Had she even told her school counselor everything? Had they involved her counselor in the discussion? Had she fought for her?

Why now, with so little time left in the school year? She wasn't a troublemaker.

I know that compulsory education ends at 18. I checked her grades and saw an abysmal, unsalvageable percentage in math and other Fs due to incomplete work. I knew (with results pending) that she still needed to pass three sections of our state graduation test. But why not see if she could work with some of those other teachers to master those concepts? Why not let her earn her English credit and keep becoming a better reader and writer? Why not let her learn all she could for another month and a half? 


That Monday morning, I walked up to my principal breathlessly and just said M's name. "I just had to pull the plug," he replied. "She had to show me she was trying a little, you know?"

I sputtered and stammered something about how I knew she should have played by the rules more, but she had so much to deal with. I was practically speechless. I wanted to scream "try a little?! I think there's a picture of her in the dictionary next to 'hard work'!" but, this being only my second year in this building, I wasn't quite at the screaming stage, or even the hissing stage. I was just in shock.

You see, my principal is awesome at supporting struggling students. He is an incredible role model and advocate for kids that are just barely hanging on. He sees himself in our toughest young African-American men, and he thinks outside the box and cares for them like a father. That's why I was stunned speechless.

I didn't realize that kids could still fall through the cracks in our building. It didn't occur to me that he might not know all of our students' stories, because he knows so many. I didn't know that he might not look for a bigger story behind yet-another-Hispanic-teen-mom-with-poor-attendance-and-skimpy-clothes.


Two weeks later, I was supposed to hug her on stage at our special awards ceremony while another teacher read my nomination of her:
The whole auditorium was supposed to have filled with thunderous applause in recognition of her perseverance. Instead, she wasn't there, and neither was I.


We were supposed to keep supporting her, to find a way to help her make it. She was supposed to keep reading, writing, learning, and growing. Even if she didn't graduate on time, she was supposed to get there. She would have kept striving. Every reflective letter she'd ever written me was filled with determination to graduate. It wasn't supposed to end like this.

I don't think my principal meant to exclude her from his determination to save our toughest kids. I think, I hope, that he just didn't really know her. I guess we (I?) didn't tell her story soon enough. Or well enough. Or both.

That's why I'm telling it now. Where does an immigrant ELL teen mom who works two jobs and carries deep sorrow fit into a high school? If she doesn't quite fit into a structure that wasn't made with her in mind, does that nullify our responsibility to help her make her dreams come true?


When graduation test results came in May, she'd passed two of her three remaining sections. Just one more to go. I think she could have made it. I hope she somehow does.

Actually, I know she will. No matter what pieces of paper she's able or not able to eventually attain, she'll build a good life for herself and her daughter. She won't consider any other possibility.

I just wish we could have helped her a little more along the way. I wish I would have told her story louder, sooner. Next time I will.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Corazón de campeón

at Latinaish!
No soy española, pero en el plano de mi corazón serpentean los callejones de Madrid. Busco las paz en las plazas llenas de historia y los parques tranquilos y soleados. Las piedras antiguas me fortalecen.

Así que, en el verano de 2006, con los recuerdos de un semestre en Madrid hace un año todavía nítidos en la mente, encendí la tele de nuestro apartamento universitario y me dirigí a Univisión. No era aficionada del fútbol, pero quería ver este "juego bonito", tan querido en lo que ahora llamaba "mi otro país". Me gustaba escuchar los comentaristas en español, y los partidos me parecieron bastante interesantes (me encantan casi todos los deportes), pero no entendía mucho de lo pasó, salvo los goles. Perdí interés después de que perdieron los Estados Unidos y luego España, y no volví a pensar en el fútbol por varios años.

El verano de 2010 fue mi segundo verano como maestra del inglés para hablantes de otros idiomas, y yo buscaba un tema que nos podría guiar para el curso del verano. Sabía que la mayoría de mis estudiantes eran aficionados del fútbol, y pensé que la Copa del Mundo daría una sensación emocionante de solidaridad a estos jóvenes de diversos países.

Entonces busqué artículos y libros del fútbol, del Mundial, y de Sudáfrica. Mis estudiantes mejoraron sus habilidades de leer, escribir, escuchar, y hablar en inglés... y yo empecé a conocer el fútbol. Estudiábamos y aprendíamos. Marcábamos los resultados de los partidos en la pared, y siempre me alegré cuando ganaron los Estados Unidos o España. Después de clases, me apuré a casa para ver toda la programación de Univision mientras planeaba las actividades para el día siguiente.

España seguía ganando.

Las clases terminaron y ahora podía ver más partidos. ¡Y España seguía ganando!

Conocí a David Villa por sus goles (y por llevar mi número favorito) y a Iker por su magia al poste (y su sonrisa encantadora). Estos jóvenes de la Roja me parecían buena gente, con este compañerismo excepcional que se puede convertir un buen equipo en un equipo singular. (Ya conocía el poder de un equipo así, pero ésta es otra historia.)

Conocí a un pulpo pronóstico.

Al final, conocí a Iniesta por su gol inolvidable, por su camiseta en memoria de su compañero fallecido, y por el relato que contaron los comentaristas de su abuelo, mirando a su nieto por la tele en algún pueblito desconocido de España. (¡Y más tarde, por tener su cumpleaños cinco días después de lo mío, en el mismo año!)

Viví la celebración en vivo con los madrileños a través del Internet. Los campeones, mis campeones, festejando en las calles estrechas, mis calles queridas.

photo credit: Rachel E. Chapman via photopin cc
Y dos años más tarde, la viví otra vez, en una camiseta estrellada, después de pegarme a la tele por varias semanas durante la Eurocopa entera, como cualquiera aficionada del fútbol.

Ahora, después de las derrotas recientes, lo que más recuerdo es la manera en que los jugadores, mis jugadores, seguían luchando. No se dieron por vencidos, ni en el último momento. Éste es lo que merece una estrella. Éste es lo que significa tener corazón de campeón.

Lo que más me siento cuando pienso en la Selección Española no es la tristeza, sino un latido fuerte de cariño. Recuerdo los goles, las sonrisas, los ojos chispeantes de 2010 y 2012. Recuerdo las manos agarrando las copas y los brazos abrazándose. Recuerdo este sentido de solidaridad, palpable aún a través de la tele. Y recuerdo el verano en que mi convertí en aficionada del fútbol.

Mi camisa favorita, comprada cuando viajé a Madrid en 2012.
Gracias, Selección Española, por enseñarme la belleza del juego bonito.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Are you enjoying your time off?" As soon as the calendar flips to June, every teacher is bombarded with this inevitable question from friends, family, acquaintances, and those random people you just met in line at the grocery store.

I think every teacher has a different response.

Some practically shout a resounding "YES!" while letting go of the worries of the school year. Some gush over increased family time and exciting vacations. Others smile with a quick "Yes, but..." and then attempt to patiently explain a few of the myriad ways teachers hone our craft over the summer.

Depending on my mood, I think I've been known to do all three, but as the political climate has shifted, I've tried to do more of the last choice. Since I've been getting more questions prefaced with "I know teachers work a lot over the summer, but...", I'll take a wild guess that many of you have been doing the same!

So, to everyone wondering if I'm enjoying my time "off": Yes, I am, but I'm really enjoying a blend of recovery, rejuvenation, and preparation!

Here's what I'm enjoying this summer:
  • playing with new technology and envisioning how it will transform my students' learning
  • cleaning and organizing my classroom, which always falls by the wayside
  • creating new materials, from digital activities to classroom learning aids
  • collaborating with colleagues across my district and outside of it
  • sparking new ideas, from nudges to blog posts to presentations
  • digging into standards and reflecting on my core philosophies
  • pushing my thinking through professional reading, conferences, & workshops
  • planning innovative activities and refining past practices
  • continuing to encourage students through Goodreads and our blog
  • curling up with books and notebooks
  • exploring this wonderful world with eager eyes and an open heart
  • savoring sweet time with my husband and parents
  • and, of course, resting and relaxing, with beautiful treats like this:
Lunch at my favorite summer spot! So much to enjoy with a view like this!
It's been a busy couple weeks of end-of-school craziness, but just writing this post makes me so excited and grateful for all I have to enjoy!

What will you enjoy in your time "off"?