Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Year of Delight

at Two Writing Teachers!
A year ago, words were rattling around in my head. It took me a few days before I picked my one little word: DELIGHT. But it certainly was the right word! With my mind centered on DELIGHT, I was able to bring myself to the heart of what matters most.

I've worked hard to craft a classroom where delight in learning is palpable: where we share joyful adventures in reading, bring forth treasures in writing, and truly care about each other. It has come together like magic, but it really took a lot of courage, a lot of careful cultivation of special little moments, and some amazing opportunities to belong to something bigger than school.

Focusing on DELIGHT has helped me slow down and enjoy my students, while reminding myself of what I really want them to take from my class: the skills and enthusiasm to be lifelong readers, writers, and learners... as well as the grace and dignity to be caring, confident citizens. It has helped me to be grateful for little moments of joy and to see all my blessings, even those in disguise as stressors.

Just a few weeks after one of my new students arrived, she wrote this in a feedback survey:
In just a couple of weeks, she saw in me the teacher I'm trying so hard to be.
Since then, whenever I feel myself getting stressed or impatient, I take a deep breath and think of her words. "When you help, you smile. I think you love when you help students." I want every student to walk away from my classroom with that feeling.

2013 may be over, but I will continue striving for delight.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Gifts from heart to heart

at Two Writing Teachers!
 You almost didn't get to read this today, because I almost didn't write.

After school today, I was plodding to the mailroom with too many thoughts zipping through my brain. Lessons. Exams. Planning PD. Upcoming units. Christmas gifts. Christmas cards. Thank-you notes. Slicing. Ugh, slicing. I should just skip it today. I'm exhausted.

When I rounded the corner, I could see two bulging interoffice mail envelopes jammed into my mailbox. Oh boy, maybe a present from my mom? I grabbed an envelope and rushed to unravel the string. Hmm, feels like books though. What on earth???

Three books and a note, all from my new colleague and friend, Stella!

She called me a "fellow writer". Stella, who writes for Choice Literacy, called me a writer. Even now, when I know I'm a writer, there's such power in that name. The name "writer" says "I believe in you. I want to know your story. I know you have something special to say to the world, and I want to hear it."

Just two words, but they reverberated through my head. Fellow writer. From exhausted to inspired.

She thought of me when she was at NCTE! She got books for me! One's an ARC. I've never had an ARC of anything before! (I can't wait to read it before the rest of the world can!)
Maybe she just grabbed a whole bunch of books and then decided to send some to various ELL teachers around the district...

Just for me!!!
She really thought of me. Right there, in the midst of NCTE. Stella, the teacher-leader. Stella, who navigates two languages and cultures with such strength and grace. Stella, who has really only talked to me in person a few times. Stella, who was such an exciting addition to our district this year.

Books are gifts from heart to heart. They draw us together: We are the same, you and I. We are readers. We lose ourselves and find ourselves in stories.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My smile for the day

at Two Writing Teachers!
I grinned as I passed her in the hallway this morning: bright scarf spiraling around her neck out of the depths of a huge fleece. What does she think of Ohio? She's probably wondering if she's moved to the North Pole!  Wisps of wavy hair framing a placid half-smile, she clutched her stack of books books and calmly navigated the sea of students. Oh good, looks like she knows where she's going!

In just over a week, that's a pretty significant accomplishment. She's learned to navigate the lunch line and open her locker. In addition to all the usual cultural and linguistic challenges my new students face, her schooling in El Salvador was interrupted. Other than a month and a half in Texas when she first entered the U.S., she hadn't been in school since 6th grade... and she's 16! Our school must seem like a new planet to her!   

Once nervous about even approaching the computers, she can now log herself in and open the Internet browser.  With just a little wrestling with the mouse, she can scroll down my webpage and click on the correct button to access our district's Rosetta Stone practice site.

Last week, she was so shy around adults that I could barely get two words out of her, even in Spanish. Although she smiled and chatted with several of my sweet Spanish-speaking girls who took her under their wing, she'd hunch over and avoid eye contact whenever I tried to check in with her. What if she didn't like me? Did she think my Spanish was bad? To my relief, one of my colleagues mentioned that it had been nearly impossible for him to get any information from her when she enrolled, and pointed out that a soft blush filled her cheeks whenever any adult spoke to her.

Yesterday, she looked up at me when I came over to her seat, and I finally got to see her slow, sweet smile creep across her face for me. She's started to ask me a few tentative questions in Spanish, and she's not quite so hesitant to admit she needs help. This afternoon, as she ran out the door with her friends, she even exclaimed "Bye Mr... Mrs. Mitchell!" with twinkling eyes.

After school, the Spanish teacher across the hallway stuck her head into my classroom.
"I just wanted you to know that you're E.'s favorite teacher!"
"I am?"
"That's what she told me during her speaking assessment. There's your smile for the day!"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

thinking thankfully

at Two Writing Teachers!
Awhile ago (actually, a year ago!!!), Michelle wrote an unconventional post about thankfulness, where she reflected on how everyday annoyances are really signs of bigger blessings. Since it's been a crazy and stressful (but wonderful) fall, her idea seemed like the perfect Thanksgiving slice for me this year!

So thanks, Michelle, for reminding me that I have so much to be thankful for... even on the most stressful days!

I am thankful for:
  • hours upon hours of work after school each day and on the weekends -- because I have a job that I love and I know it matters
  • the extensive time and effort I spend creating lessons, activities, and assessments -- because I have the freedom and flexibility to do what I know is good for my students
  • my small, oddly-shaped classroom with no air vents -- because it's my own space, and I can create my own community inside it
  • a seemingly incessant tide of SST, ETR, and IEP meetings -- because I know we are getting these students the support they need
  • students who stop by at inconvenient times for extra help or to talk about their lives -- because they want to be successful, they trust me, and they believe I can help them
  • graduate student observers and researchers who have lots of questions for me to answer -- because it's humbling and exhilarating to influence future teachers
  • new students who come with limited schooling and minimal English -- because I can make a difference in their lives
  • the very small number of staff members who came to my professional development sessions about supporting ELLs -- because their students will benefit, and they can pass on what they learned
  • students with special needs and devastating obstacles in their lives outside of school -- because I can show them that someone cares and challenge myself to find better ways to help them
  • only three computers in my classroom -- because three is better than none
  • working in a building where some colleagues do not share my beliefs about education and many are inexperienced with ELLs and technology -- because I have the opportunity to be a leader
  • hours spent at band practices, meetings, and performances -- because marching band is still part of my life
  • all the extra hours my dad has to work right now -- because his company is successful and he's good at his job... and because now I really appreciate each minute I get to see him
  • so many invitations to spend time with my mom that I don't get other things done -- because she's amazing and she loves me so much
  • when Husband doesn't buy the right thing at the grocery store, or forgets to wash my favorite pants in time for me to wear them -- because he goes to the store, does the laundry, and shows me he loves me in a million other perfect ways
  • so many friends who are far away -- because friendship is real when it continues across miles
  • cold weather -- because it brings the possibility of shimmering, magical snow
  • the ever-earlier darkness each night -- because it lets the Christmas lights shine

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

They return when we remember

at Two Writing Teachers!
I didn't grow up celebrating Day of the Dead. Learning about it in Spanish class didn't even make much of an impression on me, probably because I don't really recall my teachers doing much to actually help us experience the unique atmosphere of this special holiday.  Of course, I hadn't experienced the death of anyone close to me at that point either.

Even when I was teaching elementary Spanish, it wasn't a big deal. Sure, it was fun to have the kids make calavera crafts out of noodles and interesting to discuss how it's really different from Halloween, but it was just another one of those fun little holiday celebrations... much like the ones I remembered from middle and high school Spanish classes.

That all changed when the second year I taught middle school Spanish.  I decided that instead of a video or craft, I really wanted my students to experience the holiday.  To help students design their own altars, I built one in my classroom... and I fell in love with the holiday.  I gathered up objects that reminded me of my grandparents: their favorite foods, Marine logos for my grandpas, jewelry and coupons for my grandmas... I even called my parents to find out more about what my grandparents loved. We ended up laughing over the phone, recalling silly stories and fond memories.  It was almost as if Grandma, Grandpa, Nannie, and Granddaddy really had come back to visit.

Last year, I really missed that.  I missed buying pan de muerto from the Mexican market.  I missed the little moments of sharing memories that helped my students and I see each other more clearly as people. And I missed remembering my grandparents.

This year, I did a mini-unit about Halloween with my beginner ELLs.  As I planned it, I could feel Día de los Muertos tugging at my heart.  Why not?  Wouldn't our study of Halloween be so much richer if we compared it to Day of the Dead?  They're both related to All Souls' Day. We could practice comparing and contrasting.  Maybe we could even explore how different cultures view death.  Besides, the Mexican students might love to share their special traditions, in the same way that my Muslim students loved sharing about Eid Al-Adha.  After all, my beginner ELLs need a lot of the same supports as my Exploratory Spanish students used to... we could design altars and then write about them too!

So I converted my old design-an-altar-and-write-about-it worksheet from Spanish to English and made it a little more complex. I reserved some library books, found a short video clip, and dug out the pictures of my classroom altar.  (Unfortunately, I didn't have the time or space to make one in my classroom again... hopefully next year!)

After watching the video, reading aloud, and talking about my altar (and my grandparents), my students were ready to design their own altars and write about them.  I'm always careful to let them know that they can design it for anybody, dead or alive: pets, celebrities, themselves, and fictional characters all work great if they don't want to design it for a real friend or family member. But just like when I taught Spanish, almost every student chose to either honor a real deceased loved one or a former pet.

Colored pencils scratched and markers smeared. Students bent over their papers with faraway looks in their eyes. As they asked for help with their sentences, we chatted about their special memories.

"How nice of you to honor your grandfather!" I remarked to my Iraqi student, who was busily coloring with a dreamy half-smile on her face.

"He die... yesterday." As she looked up at me, her eyes turned into swirling pools.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" My words, suddenly thick and heavy, got stuck somewhere in my throat.  Should I tell her she doesn't have to do the activity?  But she really seems to be enjoying it!

"I did not see him for seven years."  She's lived in Egypt for the past seven years.

"Oh, so he still lived in Iraq?"

"Yes. He... my best friend." She gulped and bent her head back down to write and draw some more. Each time she called me over to help her with a sentence, I got another glimpse of her life in Iraq: walking with her grandpa around his farm, playing chess with him, watching sports together on TV, playing with his pet bird.  "I put a bird because he have this bird.  I like to see him happy."

When she finished, she had written more than anyone else in the class.

"He must have been very special."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

If we have the courage

at Two Writing Teachers!
"All our dreams can come true, 
if we have the courage to pursue them." 
-- Walt Disney

Teachers don't get many chances for outside input on our work.  Every once in a while, an administrator might drop in to observe or evaluate, but most of the time, we're on our own in our little classroom bubbles with the kids.  We reflect, we seek student feedback, and we collect evidence, but we are so closely involved in our work that it's easy to wonder how others might perceive it.  We know our students are learning... but what would an outsider see?  Would someone else, unfamiliar with the detailed inner workings of our instruction, notice all the learning that we work so hard to facilitate?  What kind of a difference are we really making?

That's why I've been amazed at the reactions of several doctoral students are observing my classroom in preparation for a research study: after just a few observations, their comments and questions to me articulate my most ardent beliefs and philosophies.  It's evident that they're seeing exactly the atmosphere I've worked so hard to foster.

"Your students are all so happy and comfortable!"
"Your classroom has many opportunities for real communication."
"I'm so interested in how you use technology to help your students interact."
"Do you believe that reading and writing are interconnected?"
"Your class activities are so meaningful for students!"
"You really know each student's writing and what they need!"

I've been feeling the sparks of magic in my classroom this year, but it's even more incredible to have my perceptions validated by outside observers.  I feel like my classroom is finally becoming the place I've dreamed of, and I'm really becoming the teacher I want to be.  When I think about how this has happened, that Disney quote pops into my head and I realize just how much courage it's taken:

  • Courage to share your real self with a roomful of teenagers.
  • Courage to let them raise their voices and share their stories.
  • Courage to try things you've never done before.
  • Courage to fail and try again.
  • Courage to challenge the way things are.
  • Courage to do things that nobody around you is doing.
  • Courage to reach out to people you've never met.
  • Courage to go where the learning leads, even if it wasn't where you'd planned.
  • Courage to give up control.
  • Courage to keep searching.
  • Courage to have the tough conversations.
  • Courage to keep showing that you care, even when it doesn't seem to make a difference.
  • Courage to be the one they can trust.
  • Courage to stand up for them.
  • Courage to keep believing.

Thank you for helping me find my courage. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My First Eid Al-Adha

at Two Writing Teachers!
As we walk from our car to the apartment building, H. comes bursting onto the front step, a whirl of wispy sky-blue sari and hijab.  Beneath her matching blue eye-shadow, her eyes sparkle with a giddiness that instantly reminds me of Christmas morning.  "Thank you for coming!!!!" she gushes as she leads us through the door.

Once we're ushered into the kitchen, a tantalizing mix of new and familiar sights and aromas floods my brain.  
Ooh, what are those?  
Oh boy, that's the same meat and rice she brought to school last year!
Wow, that dessert looks like just flan!

It looks like a reasonable amount of food for her family and us... until they declare that they've eaten so much all day that they're not going to eat!  All this food is for four people: me, my husband, my colleague, and her husband!
What a feast!
They grin while we take pictures of the food and giggle as we attempt to learn the Bengali names they teach us for each dish.  I can't remember them to save my life, but that doesn't stop my taste buds from relishing each new taste!

First, appetizers: something like egg rolls with an extra crunchy coating, and some little crispy dough balls.  My first tentative nibbles turn into enthusiastic mouthfuls.  Next, a delicious soup made of something similar to chickpeas (but whiter) with a special sour sauce to mix in.  H's mom absolutely glows with pride as we emit a chorus of "Mmmmmmm"s and dig in.  For the main course, the tender roasted meat and savory rice that I remember from the feast H's mom brought to school after finals in June.

Between bites, we chat about what I've read about the holiday and the family tells us about going to the mosque, visiting relatives, and preparing all the food.  Some family members actually went somewhere to butcher their own meat (an important part of Eid Al-Adha), and most of the vegetables are fresh from their garden!  As we pass food, laugh, and share stories, we are not two Christians, two Mormons, and a Muslim family.  We are not teachers, students, and parents.  We're just people learning from each other, discovering what we have in common, and enjoying time together.

And when our stomachs aren't sure they have any more room... not one but THREE desserts! I'm excited to explain to the family that one looks and tastes just like flan, which they've never heard of.  Another of the desserts is a different kind of custard, and the third is an intriguing bowl of tiny red balls, which H. keeps calling "the egg one".  All are delicious!

Excited by our interest in how the food was prepared, H's mom starts bringing plants in from the garden.  She shows us a chili pepper plant with the tiniest baby peppers I've ever seen, proudly flips through her phone to find pictures of out-of-season plants, and finally leads us out the back door, where the whole patio is covered in potted plants and trellises.  Her eyes shine with excitement as we "ooh" and "ahh" over the incredible variety of unique plants.

They told us the name of this vegetable in Bengali, but they didn't know it in English.
Does anybody know what it is?  I've never seen anything like it!
Too soon, it's getting late, and the family starts shoving leftover containers at us.  "We have much more," they urge us as we place modest amounts of food in a few containers.  When H.'s mom stops Husband from closing a container and starts shoveling in more rice with a serving spoon, we get it.  We are supposed to take ALL of the food!  They all beam as we pile it in the containers.  "Come back any time!"  "Yes, next time you must..."

Near the front door, H's dad is actually bouncing with excitement like a little boy. "We are so glad you come!" he keeps repeating as we try to thank him.

As we drive home, Husband and I can't stop chattering with that same Christmas-morning exuberance, and the same thoughts keep running through my head:
This is why I teach.  
I just made their day. 
World cultures are so cool.
What if I could connect this way with ALL my students' families?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

All kinds of people

at Two Writing Teachers!
She doesn't even ask anymore if I'll be around after school. Now, she just shows up with an armful of books, grinning.

Almost every afternoon, we sit in my classroom: her dark hair hidden beneath an intricately decorated hijab, my blond hair partially tucked back with a barrette. Her Bengali accent gently lifts her words up and down; my steady American speech sounding flat by comparison. We furrow our brows over biology and chemistry, wade through pages of history, and dive eagerly into writing. Chats about books and classes morph into discussions of families, culture, government, and values. Gritted teeth and stress give way to giggles and smiles.

"I like to be around all kinds of people," she often tells me, as we discuss America or school.  

Lately, she's been teaching me about Eid Al-Adha and how her family prepares. I can't imagine having to do so much cleaning, cooking, shopping, and visiting in the midst of homework, and studying -- let alone actually having to miss school for the big day!  What would it be like if Christmas was just a normal day in a normal week of school?  I know the stress I see on her face would bubble up inside me as well.  However, that doesn't stop her eyes from lighting up with animated anticipation as she chatters away.

"You should come to my house for Eid!" she exclaimed one day last week.
"Really? I'd be honored... Check with your family, though!"
The next day, she walked into my class beaming. "My mom says you can come!"

So I asked what clothes I should wear ("just your normal clothes") and I started to read about the holiday. I'm captivated by the spirit of generosity that permeates the celebration, and I'm fascinated that it has its roots in that story about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. I learned that story in Sunday school. How can so many wars have been fought between people who share the same stories?

When it comes right down to it, all kinds of people have a lot more to bring us together than to separate us. H. knows that, because she sees people's hearts.  With students like her building the future, I hope a lot more holiday celebrations will look like the one I'm attending tonight: all kinds of people being human together.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


at Two Writing Teachers!
This fall, something has been different in my classroom.  Yes, the room is completely mine this year, and I gave it a massive makeover.  Sure, I have some new students mixed in with some of my students from last year.  Certainly, I'm more confident in my teaching and more comfortable in the building this year.  But there's something else...

Something buzzing.  Something humming.  Sparks.  Magic.  DELIGHT.

It started with the postcards.  (By the way, today I got a letter in my school mailbox from a would-have-been incoming freshman who ended up withdrawing before school ever started. I never even met her, but she loved the postcard so much that she wrote me at school to say that she's sorry she can't be in my class!)

Then I carefully cultivated our writing community, and the StoryBox helped it blossom.

In the midst of pre-assessments, meetings, and plans, myriad little moments with students sparkled with joy and reminded me that, while I'm exhausted, it's worth it.

Last week, the sparks came together into a bright shower of fireworks as we began the Global Read-Aloud.  This is the first time I've read a novel aloud, and I just love the experience of talking and thinking through a story together, day after day.  I love the incredible discussions that Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind is generating.

I love wondering and predicting and finding more information together.  I love noticing great words and phrases as we read.  I love composing tweets as a class as we connect to the larger shared experience of the GRA.

Most of all, I love how students walk into my classroom already chattering about the story.
 "Could you believe how mean Dr. Hugely was? What a jerk!"
"There's a girl kind of like Melody in my math class!"
"I can't believe how people treat Melody just because her body doesn't work right!"

I love that before the bell rings at the beginning of class, they grab their notebooks & vocabulary sheets and scurry to the open area on the floor... whether or not the whiteboard actually says read-aloud is first!  (And I love that they whine if it's not!)

I love that when someone has been absent, I don't have to ask students to fill her in... because they're already re-capping what happened!  "D, you missed the funniest part yesterday!  Melody's mom went crazy!"

Last Thursday, I hadn't planned to read aloud because students buddy-read an article about cerebral palsy that another class had tweeted out.  I wanted to reserve the rest of class for writing our StoryBox pieces.  However, after reading and discussing the article with their partners, my 6th period students started begging to still read aloud!  

"I was so excited to come to class today to read this book," one student whined. 
"Me too!  I couldn't wait to come to this class!" another interjected.

"Don't you want to keep working on your writing for the StoryBox?"  Ever since we started the StoryBox Project, they've been begging to write every day, so I couldn't believe they wanted to skip writing to read together, especially when they just spent the first part of class reading an article!  However, the begging and whining was pretty priceless, so I put it up for a vote.  Every single hand went up in favor of reading more of the story together!  Their eyes twinkled as they looked around the room and looked at me.  How could I deny such DELIGHT for learning?

"Ok, let's go back to Melody's world... we'll write tomorrow!"  As I grinned and mentally began re-arranging the next few days of lesson plans, they scampered across the room to fight over the pillows, claim the rolly chairs, and situate themselves on the floor.  

The icing on the cake?  Three Korean doctoral students were observing my class for the first time that day.  For several of them, it was their very first time seeing an American high school class.  They thought I was magic!  I think the magic was mostly Sharon Draper... but I also know something special is brewing in my classroom!  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A good kind of tired

at Two Writing Teachers!
Lately, I'm barely able to drag myself from the table to the couch after dinner.  Keeping my eyes open until bedtime is a chore.  As soon as I lie down in bed (and get myself to stop thinking about school), I'm sound asleep.

However, it's a good kind of tired.  It's the kind of tired that leaves your heart happy, because you know the work is good.

How good?

1. Just in case my students weren't excited enough about writing for the StoryBox Project, our local newspaper did an article about our work with the project!  My students were absolutely beaming with pride when it was published!  Moreover, one of my former middle school colleagues shared the article on Facebook with a note about how proud she was, and our district ELL coordinator emailed it to all the other ELL teachers with a comment about how special it was.

2. As we're finishing up our StoryBox stories, we're beginning another exciting project: the Global Read Aloud!  Students are loving Out of My Mind so far, and we're excited to build relationships with other classes through our reading.  There's just nothing like the feeling of being part of something bigger than our classroom!

3. So many other little moments that sparkle like grains of crystal in the shifting sand of everyday work:

  • The new student who was so proud of being quoted in the newspaper article that he kept pointing at it, saying "That's me!  Right there!" and reading his name.  ("I've only been here for two weeks!!!" he exclaimed.)
  • The student who ran in and hugged me yesterday morning because she loved the Get Well card my classes made for her: "It made me feel special."
  • The teacher from another building who emailed to say that my students "had good things to say" about me when they babysat for her parent meeting.
  • The staff meeting where my principal told everyone about my summer postcards because he was so excited about how I'm working to build positive relationships with my students.
  • The middle school colleague who emails every once in a while to say that he's enjoyed one of my blog posts or to compliment me on something I've done.
  • The student who stays after school for help with homework nearly every day, and the giggles we usually collapse into at some point while working through a difficult question or attempting to find a creative way to remember a certain concept.
  • Furrowed brows and slight smiles during writing time.
  • Gasps and sighs and wide eyes during read aloud. (and whining when we stop!)
  • Happy sparks in student eyes when they walk into my room, and exclamations of "This class always goes so fast!" when it's time to leave.
Yes, it's a good kind of tired.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Something bigger

at Two Writing Teachers!
"Are we going to work on our stories today?"

"Do we get to write today?"

"Mrs. M, will you look at my story?"

For the past week, my classroom has felt different.  As soon as my students walk into class, their eyes shine as they ask if we'll be writing today.  They search the "in class" section on the board to see if writing time is posted. Students who never do homework pull out folders and laptops, eager to show me paragraphs and pages they carefully crafted last night or over the weekend... voluntarily!

Ever since we became part of the StoryBox Project, my students have started to see themselves as real writers with stories to tell and information to share.  Some are writing about their countries or telling the story of how they came to America. Some are describing special friends and family members, sharing stories about their favorite activities, or even writing poetry.  Others are articulating their hopes, dreams, and struggles.  All of them are excited: excited to explore who they are, excited to share a piece of themselves with others, and excited to be a part of something bigger than our classroom.

Won't you join us?  Together, our words mean more.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The StoryBox Project: connecting the world through story

(This is part 2 of my description of my students' first day with Kevin Cordi's StoryBox Project!)

So after my students and I contemplated the power of words and shared our thoughts, and after I told them about experiencing the StoryBoxes at CAWP, I reached behind my desk and revealed the surprise: 
the CAWP StoryBox!
My students are now part of an international network of people who value stories and want to share them!  We are keepers of the StoryBox, charged with appreciating it, adding to it, and passing it on!

I began pulling out stories and reading where they were from: Tennessee, West Virginia, Australia, schools around Columbus... so many exciting stories!  But I also pointed out that despite the variety already in the box, it's mostly empty, because this box is just starting its journey... so we have the opportunity to get it off to a good start!
Drop Off Box
(This picture links to the electronic story submission form.  Join us by sharing your own story!)
As I stepped back from the box, my students immediately dove in.
Some grabbed CDs and ran to the computers to listen to audio-stories.  Others grabbed a story and sat down with a partner to read together.  Still others clutched a packet of stories and curled up to lose themselves in it.

At the end of class, I knew we had to do something special to cement the excitement and gravity of the StoryBox.  I displayed Kevin's StoryBox Pledge on the screen, and we all stood up and recited it in unison.  When I was planning this, I had been slightly nervous that high schoolers would think that was dumb, but the solemnity of their voices and the pride in their eyes showed me that I had nothing to fear. (One class did make me close the door though, presumably so no hallway wanderer would look in and, as an outsider to our community, think we were weird!)

To remind them of this special day and keep them excited about the project, all students got to choose from a selection of bookmarks I made:
On one side, each bookmark has the StoryBox Pledge and one of the 8 quotations about writing/stories that I had shared at the very beginning of class. On the other side, students are reminded that their words are a gift.
(Just the quotation at the top is different on each of the 8 styles.)
Please make this project even more meaningful by submitting your own story or requesting to have the StoryBox visit you!

"We all have stories that are meant to travel—to be read or experienced by someone else." 
-- StoryBox Founder Kevin Cordi

Follow the journey of the StoryBox on Twitter with #storyboxproject and check back here for more posts about our experience with this exciting project!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Recognizing the gift of words

A few days ago, when my students walked into class, they were greeted by a bouncing me chirping that I had a surprise for them.  On the screen, they found a selection of quotations about writing and stories to contemplate:

Next, I invited students to think even more about the power of words:
(This summer at CAWP, the wonderful Kevin Cordi always told us that words are a gift.)
I shared two examples:

  • The daily emails and weekly letters that my husband and I sent each other when I lived in Spain.
  • When I wrote an article for the TBDBITL game-day newsletter about how much band meant to me, and the editor put it on the front page!  For the whole next week, band members were talking about how special it was and how my words made them think and feel.
Next, students got a few minutes to sketch or brainstorm their own special memories, and then we came back together to share as a class.  Some highlights (and remember, I teach high schoolers!) were:
  • The boy who drew a flower and explained that it represented his mom, who always ends an argument or admonishment by reminding him that she loves him no matter what he does.
  • Several students who described how they cherish calls and video-calls to family members back in their countries.
  • The shy girl who shared that when she left Japan, her best friend told her to look up at the sky while they're apart, because the same sky covers the whole world.
  • The boy who didn't want to share, and then showed me his paper privately.  He'd written: "when my mom and dad say they love me."
  • The girl who said that when she'd been going through a rough time last year, a friend had told her to not give up, because "strong bends but doesn't break."
Those brief, courageous moments of sharing certainly brought our community closer, and then it was time to reveal my surprise!  I reminded them that I went to a writing camp this summer, and then began to show pictures of a special day at the CAWP retreat: the day Kevin brought StoryBoxes to share!  

You can probably guess the surprise now, but there's more to share, and this post is already too long... Guess you'll have to read more tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Following the words

at Two Writing Teachers!
I've been meaning to write about an exciting project happening in my classroom, and I was going to write about it today...

but then I drove home with the windows open, and the sky was so blue, and the air had that delightful fall feeling that's somehow warm and chilly at the same time,

and then lines of a poem were bouncing through my mind, begging to be wrestled with and laid out into something real.

So please check back later this week for a peek into the cool things that are happening in my classroom for the next few weeks!  Meanwhile, here's the poem, which started out as a nature poem, and then when I decided the first line was going to be "now", it turned into something that wanted to feel like "After Many Springs" by Langston Hughes.

Autumn Echoes

when the tired sun sinks low a little earlier,
stretching long shadows that twine together
reaching for something they can't quite grasp

and wispy clouds spread like freshly carded cotton
suspended in a sky so blue you might fall up
and soar away like diving into clear water,

the playful breeze carries whiffs of chill,
teasing ghosts of goosebumps across my arms
that vanish almost before they appear.

What are those faint echoes shimmering on the wind?

Fleeting shouts and giggles,
splashes of color on a silvery bell,
spindly shadows marching as one.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

One Little Spark

"I got your letter!!!"
"I liked your letter!"
"Oh, I got a postcard from you!"
"That place was pretty! Where is it?"
"Recibí tu carta y quería responder, pero no pude encontrar su dirección..."
"Thank you for the letter!"
"My parents were wondering which one you were, and I explained to them..."

Last Wednesday, on the first day of school, my students came bouncing into my classroom with huge smiles and sparkling eyes.  One even pulled his postcard out of his binder, waving it as he found a seat.  Class after class, amidst a sea of hugs, excited chatter, and smiles both familiar and new, postcards (which my students mostly called "letters") came up again and again.

You see, a few weeks earlier on my trip to Hocking Hills, I perplexed the gift shop cashier by buying a huge stack of postcards to send to my students.  When I used to teach elementary school, I knew teachers who sent their new classes postcards or letters over the summer, and I just loved the idea.
Just before mailing!
Last fall, one of my freshmen wrote a few sentences in her first quarter reflection letter that stuck with me all year.  Because of her, I'll always remember how scary first days can be, especially for freshmen, new students, and ELLs.  Moreover, I'll always remember what a difference one teacher can make.
I don't even remember what we did in class, and I bet she doesn't either.
But months later, she remembered how she felt in my classroom.
When I was planning for the beginning of the year, her words kept running through my mind.  If I could make her day better without really trying, what if I tried harder?  What could I do to make that first day more of a DELIGHT for all my students?  How could I take away that nervousness and apprehension for more kids?  What were my students feeling like as they looked ahead towards the school year, and how could I make it a more positive feeling?

As I thought, worried, and wondered about my students' summer experiences, the memory of those elementary teachers who sent notes over the summer came drifting back, and I knew I had to try it.  At the very least, I hoped my students would have something positive in their minds when they thought about me and my class.  I hoped the new students would feel a little less scared, and that my students from last year would feel special that I thought of them over the summer.

Last Wednesday, I was rewarded with so many more smiles, squeals, and hugs than I had dared to dream of.  A few dollars and a few hours of my summer for pure DELIGHT on the first day?  Definitely worth it.

It's going to be a great year!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Looking forward and back

at Two Writing Teachers!
The school year is here!  It's here!  It's here!

Students come tomorrow, and I'm so excited.  Last year at this time, I was a nervous wreck: new school, new subject, new age level.  I barely slept for days beforehand.

This year, I've been sleeping soundly through the night!  I'm comfortable in my school, I'm elated to have my own room, and I'm truly looking forward to seeing my students.  One of the great things about teaching ELLs is that I get to have many of the same students several years in a row.  I keep thinking about stories I can't wait to tell certain students, new books I can't wait to show them, and conversations I can't wait to have with them.  I can't wait to check in with the students I've worried about and get caught up with the others.  And of course, I can't wait to meet my new freshmen.

I'd love to write more, but there are still a few last-minute details to complete tonight.  However, I just have to share something exciting that happened recently.  Last week, I opened up my email to find a surprising message:
(What a surprise!)
We did a phone interview today, and it was so much fun to revisit my cart-traveling days.  It's really neat to realize that my blogging helps other teachers, and now it has led to something even bigger! The article will be up later this fall, so watch your email if you get those NEA Today emails.  :-)

I know I've said it before, but the Internet is so cool!!!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Spinning and Nesting

at Two Writing Teachers!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my constant quest to improve my teaching. Since then, my brain has continued to tumble new ideas around like a washing machine, spinning and turning them over and over until they are ready.  Now, a week before school starts, some are ready, but some need a few extra cycles.

I've spent the past two days flitting around my classroom like a nesting mother bird, weaving the strands that will hold our community together and tucking in special soft fluff to make it comfortable.  After sharing two rooms with my colleague last year, I'm so excited to truly have my own space this year!

There's still so much work to do before the kids come next Wednesday, but I'm feeling encouraged, inspired, and confident that I'll be ready for them.  To make our year together more special, meaningful, and purposeful, I have some big (and little changes) in mind, including:

  • sending a postcard to each student before school starts (almost done with this!)
  • setting up the room with a cozy meeting space for whole-group discussions and open work spaces (no assigned seats) for independent & group work time
  • using random & purposeful group & partner selection methods more often since there won't be assigned seats
  • organizing periodic lunch bunches with students
  • digitizing routines by putting up QR codes near the door for classroom sign-out (a simple Google form with name & destination, since the form will put in a timestamp!) and book sign-out (Booksource Classroom Organizer)
  • not having a classroom management "system" beyond my classroom expectations, but having conversations with individual students and working with them to develop personalized interventions as needed 
  • having an ELL parent night (an idea from last year, but I let it get lost!)
  • being more purposeful with goal-setting early in the year, and incorporating English skills goals as well as academic / life skills goals
  • implementing growth portfolios early in the year and having the students maintain them throughout the year
  • digitizing our reading goal sheets (based on Penny Kittle's from Book Love, but my students each have their own) as Google spreadsheets (thanks for the idea, LeeAnn!)
  • using Goodreads and blogging with my Intermediate students (instead of just my Advanced students, as I did last year)
  • starting the year with a mini-unit about effective learning and being a community of learners, using the awesome lesson ideas in Larry Ferlazzo's new book, Self-Driven Learning
  • doing a "slice of life" unit early in the year, with excerpts from The House on Mango Street and real slices as mentor texts, so students can be more purposeful when slicing independently for the rest of the year 
  • revamping my grading to focus on mastery: 5% independent reading, 5% vocabulary development, 5% academic skills, 85% summative assessments in all areas (I will still post progress on practice work, but it will be weighted 0%!)
  • implementing Genius Time with at least my Advanced class, and maybe Intermediates too
  • using Evernote for my reading & writing conference records (I started this in the spring, and it was wonderful!), while simplifying the student writing conference record into a goal sheet and incorporating a column for skill goals into their reading goal spreadsheets
  • encouraging reading & curiosity while connecting with authors & other classes through our new class Twitter account!
Of course, there are also innumerable tiny changes and adjustments spinning in my head, but those are some of the big ones.  If you have experience with any of those topics, please share your ideas and feedback!  Also, I'd love to hear what new ideas are tumbling through your brain this year!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nature's Peace

at Two Writing Teachers
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as the sunshine into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off you as autumn leaves." 
– John Muir

I missed you all last week, but I was having an amazing vacation in Hocking Hills, enjoying nature and my sweet husband!  After having such a tough year last year, and spending so much of my summer thinking about school, I really needed that week away.  And it was wonderful!

my March Challenge prize!
Actually, it was so wonderful that I couldn't possibly describe it all for you in one slice.  In fact, it took me 25 pages to capture all the fun we had in my travel journal!

that's right, 25 pages for 5 days!

Since I can't share 25 pages with you, here are the top ten things I learned during our five days away:

10. Raccoons like to have big eating parties!  However, deer like to eat alone.
Our cabin had a wildlife feeding station. On our first night, 12 coons came out to welcome us!
The animals, deer included, didn't mind if we were sitting quietly on the deck!
9. There are still tiny fawns around in early August!
We saw 34 deer, and 6 of them were small fawns!
sweet mom & baby!
8. Saddles are heavy and complicated!
Before horseback riding, we got to brush, saddle, and learn about our horses! 
7. Hummingbirds and wild turkeys both make happy little sounds to themselves as they eat!
Three hummingbird friends visited us constantly on our deck.  When they were together, they bickered with perturbed squawks and chased each other away, but when they were alone, they squeaked happily as they ate!
To our surprise, we could hear the wild turkeys gobble as they ate!
6. No gourmet restaurant can beat grilling hot dogs on the deck of a secluded cabin!
our gorgeous deck!
5. It's possible to see 49 turtles in two hours!
That's right! 49 turtles, some on logs and some on beaches like this guy!
We realized that's an average of two turtles every five minutes, which may be my turtle-loving husband's definition of heaven!
4. Music brings people together, and making music is about having fun. (Ok, so that wasn't new, just a pleasant reminder!)
The bluegrass in this peaceful outdoor amphitheater was excellent, but watching the band members have fun playing together made it even better!
3. How to say "thank you" in Shawnee. (It's pronounced "NEE-oh-way".)
Shawnee storyteller Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah was engaging, educational, and inspiring. One of very few remaining native speakers of Shawnee, he sprinkled Shawnee words throughout his presentation.  Through talking with him before the show and trying my best to thank him in Shawnee afterwards, we made such a personal connection that he gave me one of the wampum bracelets he was wearing! I couldn't STOP saying "NEE-oh-way"!
2. Vacation isn't about the distance. There are many treasures hiding closer than you think, and REAL time spent together (with no distractions!) is the best gift of all.
Ash Cave. See the tiny person at the bottom? That's Husband!
And the number one thing I learned on our vacation was...
1. While I love being connected, being unplugged is good for my soul.
It really felt like home!