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"?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Love those kids

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Before all the last-day hugs and photos, my students spent several weeks analyzing, reflecting on, and celebrating their learning this year. (More posts are brewing!)

Reading through their reflections, I nodded and smiled as my heart grew so full it seemed ready to leap from my body and fly onto their pages. So many kids now hold different identities, and they know it! So many kids became readers who connect to books and writers who write for real purposes and audiences. So many kids now inhabit a world where words have real power, and they are confident of their ability to participate in that world. I hope they always hold onto that.

I had so many ideas today of ways to reflect on my own year, but none of them seemed quite right. All of a sudden, Sharon Creech's Love that Dog popped into my head, and I knew that was it! I love those kids. I scrambled to find Walter Dean Myers' original poem, "Love that Boy"... and this is where it took me:

Love those kids
like a daisy loves the sun
I said, love those kids
like a daisy loves the sun
Love to call them in the morning,
"It's a great day, everyone!"

They curl in chairs
and dive into books.
I said, they curl in chairs
and dive into books.
They know that words can carry them
as close or far as they dream of.

They write their lives,
making words dance and sing.
I said, they write their lives,
making words dance and sing.
They recognize the power
their very own stories bring.

They walk with strength and courage,
reaching out and standing tall.
I said, they walk with strength and courage,
reaching out and standing tall.
They'll find their places in this world
with their words to keep them strong.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Giggles echoed through the parking lot as little boys with shiny mohawks ran circles around girls with bright barrettes. Through the open doors, cheerful rhythms of corridos and cumbia drifted on the warm breeze.

"My first quince!" I scampered ahead, pulling Husband along. "Too bad Amit's wedding ran so late, or we could have been here for more of it!"

It was just before 9, and we hadn't been home since 10 a.m. From C.'s quinceañera mass to several fascinating stages of our college friend's Hindu wedding, and now back to catch part of the reception for the quince... we were running on pure adrenaline.

"Thank goodness!" As soon as we walked into the reception hall, we could tell that C. and her chambelanes (honor court boys) were getting ready to start their carefully choreographed dances. "We made it just in time!"

Relief turned to frozen apprehension as we turned to look for seats. Feeling like the new kid in an overcrowded cafeteria, I dizzily gazed out onto a vast expanse of unfamiliar Hispanic faces. Carefree kids dodged tables, chairs, and outstretched arms. Aunts, uncles, and neighbors chattered as they sipped their drinks. Where were the guidance counselor and social worker who were supposed to be here? Were those chairs open, or just waiting for someone who was in the restroom? Umm, I saw those people at mass this morning... they got there almost as early as we did! They seemed nice...

 Perdón... I started rehearsing in my head... ¿Alguien se sienta aquí? Was that even how someone would actually say it? Everyone was going to wonder what on earth we were doing there!

"Mrs. M!" Suddenly, one of my students was bounding up to us.
"Hi, D!" How nice of him to come up and say hi! He's one of my more timid kids.

"Um, do you want to sit with us?!" His grin seemed to light up the whole room.
"Thanks, D! We'd love to!" It was all I could do not to let out an audible sigh of relief as the high-school-cafeteria-feeling evaporated. We wove through tables behind him, melting into the crowd and settling into a table of students right beside the dance floor.

"Mrs. M, guess what!" M. leaned over as soon as we sat down. "Me and D. are dating now!" D. grinned sheepishly and they both chattered away as we waited for the dancing to start. "When did you and Mr. M start dating?" "How many quinces have you been to?" "Do you want something to drink?" (Even though we said we were fine, M. grabbed a bottle of water for each of us, shooting us nearly-maternal "I'm taking care of you" looks.)

Sitting back, we marveled at the graceful twirls and careful steps of C. and her chambelanes. White gloves and her purple dress swirled elegantly like echoes from another time, and I breathed in the privilege of being welcome at such a special night.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Recipe for Stress Reduction

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Teaching is exhausting and inspiring. It cracks your heart wide open and leaves your mind spinning. It has you running constantly on more cylinders than you even knew you had...

and it doesn't leave much room for recharging your batteries.

Even when you try, it's difficult to completely disconnect. Even if you find some downtime, there are students to worry about and new lesson ideas to ponder.

So how can we possibly keep ourselves sane? I found a pretty good recipe over the weekend:


  • wild, rolling, open spaces:

The view from our balcony at Pine Lakes Lodge!

  • extraordinary encounters with friendly companions:

At The Wilds, these wild horses wanted to ride along!
At the lodge, Carl the Camel loves to make new friends... especially if they have chips!

  • surprising discoveries and hidden secrets:

Who ever heard of a Takin?
The Asian rhinos are elusive and unique!

  • a cozy sanctuary wrapped in luscious green and brilliant blue:

The lodge! <3 I didn't want to leave!

  • and a step back in time:
Even though Husband gets to see John Glenn more than most people, visiting his childhood home was a treat!


Combine all ingredients with a special loved one and mix for 30 hours, far removed from all sources of stress. Breathe deeply and keep your eyes wide open.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Best Present

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
After weeks of hearing Husband giggle gleefully about his present for me, I wasn't completely surprised when I opened the door last Tuesday afternoon to find a cheerful birthday balloon. Seeing my stuffed Thumper holding a note below the balloon didn't come as a huge surprise either, but it was exciting. Oh boy, another birthday scavenger hunt
Thumper's note began: "Happy Birthday, Jennifer! Didn't we just do this last year?"
Clutching Thumper in one arm, I scampered around the house, following clues and discovering little gifts along the way.
"Happy Socks"!
A new mini-Boo!
When I got up to the computer room, this year's hunt had a new twist:
This note said there was something on the computer for me to see, but Husband would have to pull it up...
Luckily, after all the craziness of the unexpected birthday celebrations my students threw me and a surprise trip for ice cream with my mom, I'd gotten home from school late enough that I only had to wait about a half hour. Still, I was practically bouncing with excitement by the time Husband finally opened the correct program on the computer.

A birthday video? What could it be?

From my friends?!

"Happy Birthday, Jennifer." A familiar, cheery New Zealand accent bubbled out of the speakers. Renee made me a video?! My thoughts drifted back to childhood birthdays from second grade onward, when the phone would ring at 3 or 4 a.m. with a special call from my pen pal's family, who inevitably miscalculated the time difference every year.

Before my brain could completely process what was happening, the screen shifted to my best childhood friend, smiling outside in sunny North Carolina. By the time Christina stopped talking, tears were running down my cheeks.

Now Renee was back, showing pictures of New Zealand artwork and flowers in her house. So cool!

A little closer to home, Laura was sitting under a digital banner of birthday balloons on her webcam, explaining how much she'd learned from observing my classroom this year and how glad she was that we'd gotten to know each other.

The familiar strains of "Buckeye Battle Cry" blared in the background as Renee cheered, reminding me how excited she'd been to learn about OSU football and the marching band when she visited me, and how proud she'd been when I made the band while she was staying with us.

From Seattle, Megan's sharp wit left me convulsing with hysterical laughter. My friend since 6th grade and my roommate for two years, she held up a picture of us in our dorm room, proudly posed beside the towering pile of trash neither one of us wanted to take out. What silly freshmen we were! I'd forgotten about that picture!

Gleefully holding up a bunch of bananas, Renee brought back memories of the language differences we've discovered over the years. Apparently, they only use "a bunch" for bananas in NZ -- she laughs at me every time I use it as a synonym for "a lot"!

On the other coast, Ben peered into the screen with birthday greetings from Washington, D.C. He and his wife can't wait to tell stories about the trip to Spain that I helped them plan.

Just in case I didn't get the message with the bananas, Renee declared that she hoped I had "bunches of fun" on my 30th birthday and sent "bunches" of love from New Zealand!

Finally close to home again, my sweet rookie Becca gushed about how much she looked up to me when I was her squad leader and how grateful she is that we've since become like sisters.

I buried my face in Husband's shoulder. The best presents don't come in boxes. The best presents don't have price tags. The best presents are filled with love.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Something Right

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
(Except that yesterday I was still living my very special day!!!)
"That's when you know you're doing something right!" My Russian bilingual aide smiled as she surveyed the plethora of presents piled near my desk after school yesterday.

All from students. WOW!!! 
"We seriously have the sweetest students in the whole world!" I replied, thinking back over my day...

  • 1st period: A student shyly handed me a gift bag: "This is from my family and me. Happy Birthday! We hope you like it!"

It's a TAPE DISPENSER for my desk! SO CUTE!!!

  • 2nd period: Another teacher covered the first few minutes of class as I finished translating for a parent who'd come in unexpectedly to talk to a guidance counselor. When I opened the door to my room, the lights were off. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!" An eruption of joy emerged from under the tables as my whole class (and a few friends from other classes who'd apparently gotten passes to join in the fun!) jumped out to greet me. V. ran up to hug me, and I was immediately mobbed by other girls who all wanted to hug me too. When the hugging died down, I noticed a cake and a card on the table! While I cut the cake, the Mexican students sang "Las Mañanitas", two girls sang "Happy Birthday" in Arabic, and then everyone sang together in English! 

2nd per. cake!

2nd per. card! 

  • 3rd period: As I was trying to figure out if there was enough cake left to share with the students in this class, a beaming boy walked in carrying another cake! He proudly unveiled number candles and grinned. "If you want, we can make it say '03' instead of '30'!" As kids gathered around our biggest table, H. sidled up to me with a card in her hand. "Oh my gosh, you didn't have to get me anything!" I shrieked when I saw the gift card inside. Another student proudly spoke up: "I have a surprise for you tomorrow! You're going to like it!" Since I'd made the mistake of mentioning last year's mordida, several Mexican kids gleefully (but gently) pushed my face into the corner of the cake, much to the amusement of the rest of the class.  I got another round of "Las Mañanitas," another rendition "Happy Birthday" in Arabic, and even a solo of "Happy Birthday" in Russian! We all dug into the cake, sharing stories about special birthday traditions in our families and countries. 
3rd per. cake!
H.'s sweet card & gift card!
True to his word, the student who spoke up yesterday showed up this morning with a huge smile!
Chocolate & a journal? Of course I love it!
  • 6th per: Thank goodness, there was not another cake, because I couldn't have eaten any more! However, when we were talking about Tuesday Slices of Life, one student gave away this class' surprise: writing slices for my birthday
  • After school: My eyes did not believe what they were seeing. Right there, walking through my classroom door with a huge bouquet and a balloon, was a former student who now attends a different school in our district. "Happy Birthday, Mrs. M!" Unreal

One of the students who brought cake texted him that it was going to be my birthday!
I may still have a lot to work on, but yes, I'm doing something right. And it's the most important something of all.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Always a Poet

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
As some of you know, I've been participating in Chris Lehman's TeacherPoets online workshops for the past several weeks. (What?! You missed them?! Don't worry, there's still one left this Saturday, and you can watch all the previous session archives! Trust me, you'll learn a lot!)

In addition to all the learning (and fun!) in each hourly session, I've grown so much by digging deep into my own poetry throughout the week. Chris often tells us, "Poetry lives in revision." I've always been a revise-as-I-write writer, constantly changing my words as soon as I write them down... and then not wanting to look at them ever again once I declare them "finished". Watching Chris go through such detailed revision of his poetry, with multiple complete drafts, made me decide to try more drafts as well, to move beyond "good enough" and push myself to keep looking for better ways to craft a line. The mentor texts we've shared, the "big idea" that focuses each session, and the process of "workshopping" poetry together have made me think more deeply about how to raise the quality of a poem.

So instead of churning out a poem, playing with the words over an hour or a day, and then setting it aside, I've spent over a week crafting, drafting, revising, and tweaking one poem. (I'm planning to write another post about this process and how I brought it into my classroom... but not today!) This poem grew out of a moment from the original poem I wrote in response to Chris' question: "Why Poetry?"

Always a Poet

Blurry red numbers shine,
showing a time most people never see.
Dark shadows sprawl across the floor.
Silence and stillness.

The whole world lies sleeping:
my stuffed animals, cozy in my sheets.
The neighbor's dog, barking only it its dreams.
My parents, far away on their own peaceful island down the hall. 

But not me. 
Words buzz, hum, and dance inside my head.
Sparks fly as they come together.
There's school tomorrow, but my brain is busy now.

I swing my scrawny legs out from their cozy cocoon
and carefully sneak through slanted moonlight,
my familiar room now transformed
into murky mounds and secretive shadows.
The curly carpet tickles my little feet
as I beg the floorboards not to squeak.

I shiver at the smooth coolness of my desk chair
and fumble for the overhead lamp switch.
The sharp click echoes through the still shadows
and a bubble of soft light drapes itself over me.

Peeling back a deliciously smooth blank page,
I let the words tumble out joyfully.

Suddenly I'm soaring, carried high
on waves of words that jump and crash.
My pencil dances, not caring for my smudged hand,
my stiff wrist, my weary eyes, or the minutes ticking by.

Finally, my thoughts rest, content on the page.
Not yet perfect, but preserved.

I gently turn the desk lamp's knob and cringe
at another resounding click.
Without my dome of golden light
and without those buzzing words pinned on a page,
the darkness is deeper
and the silence stiller.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Right out of their mouths

Discover. Play. Build.
with Ruth Ayres!

"How do I know who wrote this post?" A. calls me over in the middle of ELL Resource, gesturing at his phone.

"It should say whose blog it is at the top... Scroll up... See, this is E.'s blog."

"No. Way." He glances over his shoulder at E., who's sitting at a computer but has now turned around upon hearing her name. "She was in my English class last year and she HATED reading!!! Now she loves it!" (They are not in the same English class this year, so he hasn't witnessed her daily excitement about reading growing like I have.)

Behind him, she giggles, nodding.

"It must be because she had you as a teacher!" he declares. Before I can sputter "thank you," he continues. "Because you encourage us so much!" 

I grin. Every time he has to find a new book, A. still insists that he can't find one and he doesn't like reading... but after he flips through a stack of books I've picked out just for him, he always finds one that leaves him spitting constant updates on the plot or characters whenever he walks into my room. He won't declare himself a reader yet, but he's working his way up the road.

I'm still digesting what he said when E. looks up at me with sparkling eyes and blurts out, "You work miracles with reading!!!"

I wish I could scoop the words right out of their mouths and hold onto them, freeze this moment and play it back forever: the pure delight on her face, the way he looks as if he's standing at the open door to a secret club.

"Aw, thanks guys... That's part of why I became a teacher."

My heart is so light I might fly right up into the square ceiling tiles.

Earlier this week I submitted my data for the "student growth" part of my evaluation: two pages of numbers on a spreadsheet. How do I submit this moment?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A few kind words

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
I think I could listen to Chris Lehman talk about poetry all day. The past two Saturdays I've enjoyed taking a break from my usual morning languor to dive deep into poetry with his group of TeacherPoets. Each hour flies by, a flurry of reading, writing, listening, and tweeting. Each hour leaves me feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to spark renewed vigor in our writing workshop. Each hour reminds me of the atmosphere of joy and purpose I want to create in my classroom.

Last week, Chris made my day when he tweeted me about my reflection on our first session:

Words are so powerful. Even though he's never met me, he could see my enthusiasm through my writing. And with a short reply, he made my day just as much as he claimed I'd made his.

Then, on Saturday, I almost fell out of the bed (That's right, bed. I won't pretend I'm sitting in a chair at 11:00 on a Saturday!) when this happened:

I couldn't believe it. Right there, in front of everyone, in the midst of all the talking and tweeting and reading and writing, he interjected that I "wrote an awesome blog post" and thanked me for my "energy"!!!

For that minute, I was really special. He noticed who I was. He remembered my post.
I mattered. And I wanted to work even harder. That's the power of a few kind words.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Teacher Poets: more than a workshop

at Two Writing Teachers!
Unless we have special plans, weekend mornings at our house slither slowly by. Long after Husband has snuck into the computer room, I relish curling up in the cozy covers. Whether I'm drifting in and out of sleep or playing on my iPad, I'm sure to be snuggled up with a serene smile.

But this Saturday was different. With bright eyes, I hemmed in my cozy nest with supplies: iPad, phone, notebook, pen, printed poem. As glittering sun poured in the window, I nodded and pondered as smooth ink danced across the page. Circling and smiling, marking and noticing, wondering and appreciating.

Listening to Billy Collins "workshop" his own poem sent me into ripples of giggles. This was going to be so much fun!

From deep in the words, I surfaced, peeking at the time on my phone. It was almost time! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I wiggled with anticipation as I clicked "play" on the livestream Google Hangout on my iPad and propped it against a nearby stuffed animal, then opened Twitter on my phone. #TeacherPoets, here we go!!!

It. Was. Awesome! The immediate glimmer of excitement in Chris Lehman's eyes sparked an exhilarating hour of thinking and sharing, reading and writing, listening and responding. Even though we were all in different states and only 6 people were live on screen, we all seemed to be part of the same room. Somehow, seeing faces and hearing voices made this so much more magical than a regular Twitter chat. Chris' work became real because we could see the flush in his cheeks and the sparks in his eyes. We could watch ideas forming as he pre-wrote and follow his hand as he captured those ideas with careful words. We could hear the tears lurking in his voice and catch them hiding in his eyes as little moments reminded him of the power of writing, teaching, and learning.

Halfway through, Husband came in with a basket of clean clothes and couldn't hold in his sputtering laughter at the sight of me simultaneously watching my iPad, tweeting on my phone, scribbling in my notebook, and referring to the printed poem. "He showed two of my tweets on screen!" I squealed, and then dove back into the nascent poem pieces taking shape in my notebook.

Too soon, the hour was over. My head was spinning with writing ideas, teaching ideas, and that wonderful sizzle that comes from contributing to an inspiring, encouraging community of learners. My notebook and brain were full, my heart was recharged, and I couldn't WAIT for the next session.

That's how I want my students to feel, and now I have new ideas to help us get there.

Friday, April 11, 2014

¿Por qué la poesía?

at Latinaish!
Today is Spanish Friday, so this post is in Spanish! If you don't speak Spanish, you can try out Google Translate, but be prepared for some crazy errors! Computers don't do languages like people do!

Abril es el Mes de la Poesía en los EEUU, y esta semana Chris Lehman nos preguntó: ¿Por qué la poesía?

Hace unas semanas, me chocó leer que la poesía intimida a mi amiga Laura. Wow... pensé. Hay gente que vive sin poemas revoleando por sus cabezas... pobrecitos.

Para ellos dedico un poema hoy, aunque lo escribo también para conocer mejor a la poeta que vive dentro de mi corazón. Todos somos poetas, porque todos somos humanos.

¿Por qué la poesía?

Para mi, la respuesta es bastante sencilla:
porque la poesía soy yo,

y yo soy la poesía.

Vivo en poesía.

Vivo en un mundo de palabras que vuelan y giran,
estirándose para capturar imágenes deliciosas y remolinos de emociones.

Desde que era muy niña, los poemas me han chorreado por la mente:
antorchas radiantes en las sombras nebulosas de la madrugada,
pájaros elegantes bailando en las brisas suaves de la primavera,
chispas centelleantes rebotando en los rayos delicados del sol.

Saboreo las palabras:

A veces flotan y juguetean.
A veces chorrean como un torrente.

Se unan, se entrelazan.
Y me ayudan a ver,
                                        a entender, 
                                                                       a sentir,
                                                                                                a vivir.

En la poesía se encuentra la vida,
y la vida se expresa en poesía.

¿Por qué la poesía?
La poesía es la humanidad.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Unexpected joy

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers
11:20 (near the end of 4th period): Flicker. CLICK. Shudder. Hummm. Flicker. ZAP.


Giggles. Chatter.


Stirring. Wondering. Eyes meeting with incredulous glances.

Ruffled, restless, buzzing anticipation.

11:31 (end of 4th period): Principals appear in the dim doorways, carrying calmness like a gift.
"Go on ahead to your next class, just like normal."
Quizzical looks. Incipient complaints snuffed out before they finish forming.
A smattering of questions.
Strangely quiet people-shapes drift like ghosts through filtered sunlight, navigating new shadows.

11:35-1:00 (5th period & lunch):
Coveting her window, I move into my colleague's room.
"Phew! So glad I didn't bring a microwave lunch today!"
We accomplish a surprising amount of collaborative work, punctuated with brief bursts of "Oh wait, no Internet..." and "We'll Google that when the wireless comes back..." and "Here, I should make a copy of this for you... oh, wait..."

1:02 (beginning of 6th period): In the murky depths of our windowless cave, my smallest class huddles under the too-glaring, too-fake canopy of one brazen emergency light.
"Thank goodness we have a small class!"
"Awwww, man, my phone's dead!"
"This light feels bright."
"I heard we're getting out at 1:15!"
"Can we just do nothing?"
"I heard no such thing. But I have a great book to tell you about!"
Eager ears tune in.

1:10: The secretary comes on the loudspeaker... telling staff that the deadline for submitting grades online has been extended.
Quick gasps, bright eyes... and long sighs.
"I thought she was going to say we could go home!"
"We are NOT going home... now let's get to work!"
Quiet minds settle in.

1:15: The principal comes on the loudspeaker... summoning a student to the office.
Quick gasps, bright eyes... and exasperated exhales.
Re-start. Re-focus.
Big grins. Pencils scratching.

1:25: D. bolts upright in her chair. "My mom just texted me that we're going home at 1:30."
"Ask your mom why she's texting you during class!"
Re-settle. Re-focus.

1:30: A student enters the room, looking for a book.
Quick gasps, bright eyes... and giggles.
"Aw, I thought that was a principal!"
"Yeah, I thought someone was coming in to tell us we could leave!"
"Soooo, annnnywaaaay...  that work we were doing..."
Sheepish smiles. Pencils scratching.

1:37: An assistant principal comes on the loudspeaker... to explain which clubs and sports are canceled and which are still on.
And then he starts listing bus changes.
That's odd... 
"... And you are all... very calmly... DISMISSED!" he declares.
"VERY CALMLY!" I reiterate in the midst of a whirlwind of papers, bags, scurrying arms, and scuttling legs. "Don't forget that today is Tuesday! This would make a great Slice of Life!!!"

1:55 (should be the beginning of 7th period): As I finish checking in with a colleague about some students, my footsteps echo down the shadowy hallway. Not much to do here with no wireless... I gleefully text my parents and husband to brag.

I force myself to focus long enough to gather up the correct work to take home.

And then...

I step into the brilliant sunshine and practically float on the playful breeze.

My cheeks delight in the sunshine that spills in through the open windows and moonroof.

I guess Somebody Up There wanted us to enjoy this gorgeous day.

2:42 (should be the release bell at the end of the day): Rustling wind. Skittering leaves. Swaying branches. Dazzling sun.



Not a bad spot to end the school day, right?!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Another March

31 of 31 at Two Writing Teachers!
The first year I did the Slice of Life Challenge, I was ecstatic at the end: just completely filled with pride that I had accomplished such a monumental task.

Last year was my first as an ELL teacher and my first challenge writing alongside my students. Thus, my feelings at the end of the month were more along the lines of being relieved that I survived my part of the challenge. Thus, my reflections and pride were all about bringing the challenge to them.

This year, my head is swirling with mixed feelings. Lots of last year's exhaustion and relief are definitely prominent, but I'm also even more proud of my students and even more excited about what slicing has done for our classroom community, since I learned from last year and improved the way I implemented the classroom challenge with my students. Moreover, I brought several of my colleagues and friends into the challenge, which added another dimension of joy and pride this year.

Since swirling emotions are perfect for poetry, it seems that the ideal way to wrap up March 2014 is with a poem:

Another March

Another March,
another month of writing.

A month of thinking
of playing
of stretching.
A month of pushing
of nudging
of encouraging.
A month of connecting
 of understanding
of growing.

Another March,
another challenge vanquished.

A month of excitement,
A month of frustration, 
A month of courage,

Another March,
another month of writing                              

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The power of play

30 of 31 at Two Writing Teachers!
"Where did you learn all this?" My mom looks sideways at me with an incredulous smile. I've spent the past hour helping her set up a new blog for staff communication and providing a few mini-lessons to extend her general blogging skills.

We customized the design of her new blog and added essential widgets to the sidebar, including HTML Twitter widgets. Next, we reviewed labels/tagging, which I'd introduced her to when she started her blog last summer, but which she hadn't mastered independent use of yet. After practicing by adding some important labels to old posts, I knew I also had to reinforce why to use them.

"Do you remember why it's nice to use tags?"
"So, let's say someone wants to read all your posts about family, they can click on the 'family' tag..." I went to the public view of her blog and clicked on it, just as I do when teaching my students to tag on our class blog. "... and see, they can read all those posts with the 'family' label in one spot! Or professionally, they might want to read all your posts about PLCs..."
"Ohhh, yeah, I can see how that would be useful!"

Because I'd noticed her starting to include web images in her posts, I introduced her to PhotoPin. Like my students, she was amazed at the variety and quality of their photos. "I can't wait to tell my kids that I taught you to use PhotoPin! They'll get a big kick out of that!"

However, because PhotoPin gives you an HTML code for attribution, I knew we'd have to go into the HTML editing... and I knew that would be a big leap for her.

"Ok, so I'm going to write 'This is the caption' in the caption box so I can find it easily in the HTML. You're going to freak out when I click this button, but all we have to do is look for that note."

"OOOOH! What'd you do to my blog?!" As soon as I clicked "HTML", she shrieked melodramatically.

See where I wrote "This is the caption"?
"It's ok, we just have to look for our note. See? Here it is: 'This is the caption'. Now that I know where the caption is, we can just delete that note and paste the PhotoPin code in that spot. And then..." I clicked back on "Compose" to return to the normal WYSIWYG view... "Look how nice it looks! PhotoPin's code gave us these nice links in this nice format!"
For example:
photo credit: splorp via photopin cc
"Oooh, that does look professional... Wow... So you just pasted that code right where you wrote 'This is the caption'?"
I could hear the hesitance in her voice.
"Yeah, it's not so scary if you write yourself a note like that! ... I'll help you next time you want to do it, if you want."

"How did you learn how to do all this?!"
"Umm, I..." I paused. Where did I learn how to do "all this"? I had never really thought about it.
"I... I don't know..."  My lack of an answer shocked me. "Just playing around, I guess, and sometimes I read things online when I need to learn something new... But mostly, just playing, I guess."

I've always been glad that I learned a little bit of programming in high school and college, back when I thought I wanted to be an engineer. Even though I learned C++ and C (not HTML), simply having a little coding experience means that I can look at code and not be intimidated by it. When I look at code, I see language (even if it's one I don't really speak well), not gibberish. I can decipher meaning, instead of feeling overwhelmed. Far from being paralyzed, I'm willing to play.

And play holds the power of learning.