Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Our new pet

Day 25 of 31 days of writing!
Upon waking up, he chirps a lively little song, excited to begin exploring.

He ventures out from his bed and roams around the room, purring with contentment. Whirring and spinning, he curiously investigates every corner, nook, and crevice. He sidles up to walls, scratching his itches and snuggling. He scouts under the bed, hunts under the dresser, and burrows under the nightstand.

When he finds something to nibble on, he gobbles it down with a cheerful little murmur, making sure to take care of every last morsel.

Eventually, he decides the room has been thoroughly inspected and his belly is satisfied. Wiggling with joy, he eases over to his bed and gently settles himself in, squirming to find just the right position.

Just before he falls asleep, he warbles another cheery song, pleased with his work for the day.

Who is this adorable new pet? Roomby the Roomba, our happy helper!

All snuggled up to his bed, ready to explore some more!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dance Party

Day 24 of 31 days of writing
"Is she having a dance party?" Husband's eyes sparkle as he leans over.

"Allison says maybe she's playing soccer in there!" I giggle. "But I think right now she's crawling around or swimming laps or something..."

"Maybe it's like one of those lap pools that's only as long as a person but has a current so you can swim in one spot!" He grins and raises an eyebrow.

"Yeah, she's so big now! See?" We both burst into laughter as a strange bump suddenly appears and squirms on one side of my belly.

"Oop, and now it's dance party time!" Way down in another spot, some little patters push against my skin. "She loves when her daddy pats her!"

I snuggle my head deeper into Husband's shoulder and we enjoy the show: wriggles, ripples, thumps, and quivers. So many surprises right under our hands.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A new grip

Day 23 of 31 days of writing
I smile as I finish commenting on my students' slices, my heart full, as always, of the new connections we're making.

Opening up my Blogger dashboard, I marvel at my stats, astounded that people continue to view my blog even when I haven't posted in days. Realizing that people have my old blog posts pinned on Pinterest always brings an astonishing wave of encouragement, especially when life has done its best to hinder my writing.

The familiar routine of starting a post is like easing into my favorite pair of pajamas after a long day. Add my tags, think about a title (but leave it blank for now), insert the slicing logo, add my typical caption... Wait, what day is it? The strangeness of having missed so many days this March jars me out of the comfort of my routine. Yikes. The 23rd? I click over to the live view of my blog to check this month's archive. And I've only written 11 posts? I shake off the temptation to be discouraged. Really, 11 posts is pretty good with everything that's been going on lately: testing and sickness, enjoying days off, and giving students quality feedback on their writing.

I take a deep breath and move beyond that caption to figuring out my hook. Playing with words again feels like stretching sore muscles in the morning in the midst of marching band two-a-days: tough, but also satisfying and invigorating.

This is the year of not being perfect, and that's ok. That means this is also the year of not giving up, of teaching myself and my students to refocus on what matters and regroup with resiliency and hope. This is the year of identifying with my struggling students in a whole new way.

This is the year of Hebrews 12:12-13: “So take a new grip with your tired hands and stand firm on your shaky legs.  Mark out a straight path for your feet.  Then those who follow you, though they are weak and lame, will not stumble and fall but will become strong.”

Today was the first day of the new grading period and the first day back after break: a good day to take a new grip, set my feet where they belong, and help my students do the same.

Monday, March 16, 2015

By my side

Day 16 of 31 days of writing!
"Sorry... I didn't quite make it..." I mumbled my sheepish confession and curled up with my arms on the toilet seat.

"It's okay, honey!" Husband looked at me with wide eyes full of concern, using his sweetest just-for-me voice. He grabbed some paper towels and got to work on the tile floor.

"See, you're going to be such a good dad!" I climbed into bed and snuggled up to him, sighing while he texted my parents to say we wouldn't be able to go out to dinner.

"What flavor of clear Gatorade do you want?" He patted my hair, tucked me in, and made an unplanned run to the store.

All through the long night, he rubbed my back, refilled my water bottle, and kissed my forehead.

After climbing back into bed one time, I couldn't find my fuzzy white bear. "Where's Valentine?"
"Do you want him?" His eyes said that he just wished he could make me feel better.
My head nestled further into his arm with every nod. He sat up, rummaged around in the sheets, and finally, way down by my feet, found the cute bear hugging a heart that he'd gotten me years ago. Tucking Valentine in the perfect snuggling spot under my arm, he patted my head again.

In the midst of the shadowy hours, I put his hand on my rollicking belly, where Baby Girl seemed to be protesting the lack of food and water with her biggest kicks and jabs.
"She wants to know where her nutrition is!"
"She'll be okay, honey! Don't worry!" His hand wrapped around mine as I bent my head toward his shoulder.

And when I woke up, I had to uncurl my stiff fingers from his. That's love.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Not perfect

Day 14 of 31 days of writing!
I almost didn't write this March. This challenge, usually one of my favorite (although certainly always difficult!) times of the year, loomed ahead, daunting and unattainable. Ultimately, I put on my game face and charged in, knowing that I needed to reclaim my writing life.

But when I did, I told myself what I tell my students every March: that even if you don't write every day, you'll end up writing more than you would have otherwise. You'll play with words in new ways, grow as a writer, make new connections, and strengthen old ones. You'll start to see the world in a different way, a writerly way, which means being more thoughtful, more observant, more alive.

For the first week, I was going strong, even through tortuous testing and days I didn't want to write. And then, on Monday, it happened: I just couldn't write. Schoolwork ran right into a band meeting and there was just no time.

Maybe I could write during the meeting, if it got boring? Just a quick slice? I could bring my laptop... no, that would make me feel like I HAD to write. I'd just bring my iPad, and if I wanted to, I could blog on there. Yes, that could work! 

But it was a great meeting, one that I'd hoped to slice about later this week. There was no way I was going to take part of myself away from such important, thoughtful conversations with my band family to blog.

That was it. After three perfect Marches, this year's chance at perfection was over after only 8 days. For a lifelong perfectionist, that was a new, uncomfortable feeling.

But missing one day isn't too bad, right? After all, I'd told myself before I even started that I probably wouldn't make it this year. And while I'd hoped to make it farther than 8 days, now I had an idea for my next slice!

But Tuesday was the last of 10 grueling days of testing. I was so excited to get back to teaching, but I was also absolutely wiped out, overwhelmed with how the testing had interfered with my real work, and discouraged by the fact that I'd only have three days with my students before Spring Break. By the time I got my plans ready, I could barely keep my eyes open.

I'll go home early (anything before 5 is "early" for me), take a nap, and then blog after dinner! I'll be refreshed and ready to write! 

I napped for two hours. Husband made dinner and dragged me out of bed to eat it. While that woke me up a little, I could barely put together a coherent thought, let alone a sentence, and my eyelids were heavy before I'd even been up for an hour. It turns out that skipping a second day is even easier than missing the first.

And while I got myself in gear on Wednesday, the next two days brought more napping, a severe need to get caught up on work, and even giving myself permission to just snuggle up to Husband on the couch and let him hug away the stress of the past few weeks.

Sometimes, letting yourself not be perfect is the most perfect choice of all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Day 11 of 31 days of writing!
"I missed you!!!" Sparks of life returned to our exhausted eyes this morning as my students and I finally greeted each other in my classroom again.

Through yesterday, 10 of my last 11 school days were consumed with testing. 10 days trapped in silent, barren, unfamiliar rooms. 10 days of standardized directions, ridiculous procedures, and logistical puzzles: interpreters, testing locations, dictionaries, make-ups. 10 days of sub plans, adjusted schedules, and incomplete classes. (Most of my students missed 5-6 days of class at different times over the course of the 10 days. Some are still making up tests the rest of this week.) 10 days of disrupted routines. 10 days of heartbreak at the defeatstrugglefrustration, and stress in my students' solemn faces and hunched bodies.

10 days of just trudging through, fighting to remember what matters.

But finally, this morning, we were back together. Worn out, but together. Together in our cozy little community, closely knit with books, words, hope, trust, and love. Weary, but smiling.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Passing it on

Day 8 of 31 days of writing!
As I slowly shake myself out of a blissful fog, a muffled cacophony rises through the heating vents and up the stairs. Sometimes, it's clanging metal or heavy pounding. Other times, it might be the rhythmic purr of sawing or the soft, gentle cadence of sanding.

For a moment, I think I'm a kid again, nestled in my twin bed while my dad works on some project in the basement. But these sounds are even sweeter now, because they're accompanied by cheerful voices: one teaching, one learning.

"Ok, so it looks like we'll need 8 1x3's, minus whatever I have at home... write down '8-something 1x3's... and those will go over here, then we'll need some metal brackets... write 'metal brackets'..." My dad has an incredible mind for planning projects.

"Well, watching and asking questions is how you learn! I learned most of this from watching Grandpa... here, do you want to try the next one?" From staining and spackling to miter cuts and door installation, Daddy always shows Husband what to do the first time and then lets him try.

For a quirky engineer, my daddy is sure a good teacher!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The cute couple

Day 7 of 31 days of writing!
"Wow, you two have such great smiles! You must be really excited about this!" The customer service lady at Babies 'R Us beams at us.

Husband and I just grin sideways at each other, recalling the multitude of similar remarks we've received from waiters and employees.

Earlier this week, my mom met a lady who lives on our street. As they slowly figured out that she lives across the street from us, she told my mom, "Oh! That cute young couple! Nobody knows them well, but they're so cute!"

On our vacation last summer, countless hotel employees and fellow guests asked us if we were on our honeymoon... and were constantly astonished when we said we were actually about to celebrate our seventh anniversary.

Wherever we go, random strangers comment on our smiles, how happy we are, how cute we are, etc. Colleagues and acquaintances who don't often see us together always make the same observations.

Later, our conversation is always the same: Aren't other people happy when they're doing fun things like eating out or going on trips? Don't other married people still giggle together, look into each other's eyes, nuzzle each other's foreheads, and have special smiles just for each other? Then we laugh about the fact that I've always been famous for my huge, ever-present smile that crinkles up my eyes, but Husband never got comments on his smile until we started dating.

Apparently, our love is special enough that it stands out to everyone, and that's definitely something to smile about.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Las dos voces

Day 6 of 31 days of writing!
Fridays are for Spanish!
No quiero escribir.
Pero no quiero dejar el desafío tan temprano.
Pero estoy cansada.
...o mejor, estoy agotada.
Pero a veces es importante seguir adelante 
aunque sea difícil.
Pero no tengo nada que decir.
Pero así puedo entender y apoyar a mis estudiantes 
cuando les cuesta escribir.
Pero es viernes, y no quiero escribir en español. 
Es más difícil. 
Pero necesito practicar mi español, 
y necesito recordar cómo luchan mis estudiantes 
cuando escriben en inglés.
Pero... no quiero...
¡Uy, pero... vámonos! 
Habrán comentarios simpáticos,
la diversión de jugar con las palabras,
y el sentido de lograr algo importante.

¡Sólo una entrada cortita!
Vale... vámonos.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Words with wings

Day 5 of 31 days of writing!
Emails from colleagues who work in other buildings.
Kind words in the hallway.
Likes, comments, shares, and favorites on social media... from "real-life" friends & colleagues, not just blogging friends.

"I've loved your blog posts this week!"
"So-and-so shared your blog post with me and I loved it!"
"Thank you for writing what I've been feeling about all this testing, but in a way that I never could!"

It's hard to believe that blogging used to be my secret hobby, something I was afraid to share aside from the already-courageous act of pushing that orange "publish" button. Did I really keep my whole first March Challenge a secret from everyone but my husband? Did I really wait nearly two years before starting to share my posts on Facebook, because I wasn't sure what my non-blogging friends would think?

Without living the life of a writer and braving those fears, I wouldn't have remembered how my students feel, and I wouldn't have discovered what I hope they take away from my class:

Real writing takes courage.
Sharing those words takes even more.
But the power in words that are crafted and shared from the heart gives them wings far beyond what you can even dream of.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The heart of what matters

Day 4 of 31 days of writing!
The invisible-but-weighty clouds of testing hang ominously over our heads. Weeks of time consumed with arranging and verifying accommodations, writing sub plans, and watching students either toil resolutely for too many hours or just give up after too few.

How can I be excited to pour out my energy when I don't get to go to class or help my students? I feel like I'm losing myself because I don't get to teach.

How are my students supposed to remember that learning is fun when their days are consumed with overly arduous tests? They're losing the readers and writers they've become.

How will they realize all the progress they've made when they are constantly confronted by overwhelming passages and questions far above their frustration level? They're losing the strength and confidence they've gained.

How can they remember that they are special, unique, valuable people when they are wading through tests that tell them there is one right answer, one acceptable score, one way to become successful? They're losing the sense that they matter.

Those are things that no one should lose. So I printed out Peter Reynolds' wonderful encouragement poster that accompanies his short film, The Testing Camera, shrunk it into small cards, and copied them on colored paper. I got out my PARCC and OGT testing rosters, sat quietly, and thought about each student, one by one. And as I wrote small notes about their kindness, their enthusiasm, their attitudes, and their growth, the testing clouds started to dissipate.

mini-posters on the front, personal notes on the back :-)
I hope my words will bring some reassurance, smiles, and flutters of hope tomorrow morning. I hope they might be held in some hearts the way I still hold the words of some of my teachers.

But no matter what they mean to my students, they've already made a difference. As I wrote, I remembered just how much I love those kids, and that brought me back to the heart of what matters. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work with these amazing students every day!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Back to life

Day 3 of 31 days of writing!
"Well, you can try again in the summer, in the fall, and next spring, as many times as you need to..." When I walk back into the small room where our intrepid testers are taking a lunch break, they've been asking my colleague what will happen if they fail the tests. Their faces are tired and their bodies are tense. They will spend all day like this for a week... they don't need to spend lunch this way too!

"Aw, but come on, you've been thinking about those tests all day!" From somewhere in the depths of my own fatigue, I muster more enthusiasm than I feel. "This is your chance to relax for a half hour! Get your mind away from those tests! Let's talk about something fun!"

Exhausted half-smiles. Testing all day for days in a row is bad enough. Knowing that these tests, which don't even come close to showing all the progress you've made as you learn English and content at the same time, determine if you'll get to wear a cap and gown like everyone else is a burdensome weight. Being sequestered with your teachers for lunch, unable to speak your language or see your non-testing friends, with the rest of the test still looming over your head, is probably close to most students' definition of pure torture.

"So, what's the best food in the cafeteria?" My worn-out brain is not adept at coming up with encouraging conversation topics, but my sweet students slowly start to talk about their lunches. "Salads! They are healthy and good!" S. declares, and a few other students nod.

"Ooh, good for you!" I grin. "When I was your age, I would have never chosen a salad! I always wanted pop, nachos, candy..." Giggles turn into laughs and eyes begin to sparkle with glints of life again. Suddenly, the little room inside the guidance office is bubbling with conversation.

"How's the baby doing?"
"So how did you decide to be a teacher?"
"What's Idaho like?"
"I was BORN in 1998!"
"I came to Ohio because we had family here."

Finally, my students look like my students again, instead of vacant, downtrodden zombies. Sharing our stories has brought them back to life, and it's done the same for me... until I look over and see D. with his face buried in his hands. "D, are you ok?"

He sighs and lifts his head. "Yeah..." But his face is red and his eyelids are drooping.

"Come on, get up and wiggle around while you can! We have to be awake to go beat that test!" I start to stretch and squirm in silly ways.

A few giggles.

"Tomorrow we should have a lunchtime dance party to get your energy back!" More giggles.
"Yeah, we can do the Chicken Dance!"
"Those guidance counselors and secretaries will look in here and wonder what's happening!" By the time we head out the door to confront the tests again, the whole roomful of students, teachers, and aides is laughing. Together.

When impersonal, challenging mandates drain us, connections bring us back to life.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Day 2 of 31 days of writing!
"Teacher!" one of my new students from Saudi Arabia called me over on the first day of PARCC ELA testing last week. "What does this mean?"

I glanced down at the paragraph-long essay prompt inside the red box. "I'm sorry, I can't help you with any of the questions..."

"But I don't understand what I have to do!!!" His punched-out words and panicked eyes pierced me with an accusatory look, as if I were directly responsible for this torture. Gesturing futilely at the cumbersome, cursory word-to-word dictionary on his table, I forced what I hoped was an encouraging smile. "You can try to use your dictionary... just do your best."

About twenty minutes later, one of my Korean beginners raised her hand. My heart sunk when I saw the closed test booklet sitting in her lap. The regular testing time wasn't even over yet, let alone the extended time that my ELLs can (and should) take. "Are you finished? Remember you can take a very long time..." I halfheartedly pointed at her word-to-word dictionary.

Her wide, serious eyes were filled with defeat as she shook her head. "I don't understand."


It was one thing to have my heart break to see my students exhausting themselves for graduation testing, working frantically for entire days all week. It's an entirely different kind of devastation to see them just give up because they can't even access the test questions, let alone complete the tasks that are supposed to show what they know and can do.

Contrary to the beliefs of the PARCC creators, allowing beginner and low intermediate students to have interpreters and translation for a language arts assessment would not invalidate the test constructs. In fact, my graduate classes in foreign language education and TESOL all taught me that reading should be assessed in ways that determine true comprehension of the passage by taking language dependency out of the assessment items: using pictures, nonverbal tasks, and questions in students' first language. And how could anyone possibly show how well they can write if they can't decipher what the prompt is asking them to write about?

The old tests were arduous enough, but at least they attempted to give my students a chance: interpreters, audio CD translations, the use of electronic dictionaries and more robust paper dictionaries. Sadly, the absurd restrictions of PARCC ELA tests do not preserve their validity; they invalidate my students. With the old tests, my students were resolute warriors. This year's freshmen were defeated as soon as they began.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Braving the cold

Day 1 of 31 of the March Challenge at Two Writing Teachers!
Fluffy, feathery snowflakes drift gently through the murky Ohio sky, settling themselves onto windswept drifts and old heaps of shoveled snow.
Do you see the falling flakes? Why is it so hard to capture them in a picture?
In December, the sight of these downy dancers twirling in the air makes me want to run outside, spread my arms wide, and stick my tongue out. But in March, the same sight just makes me want to hunker down and hide. Especially this March.

This school year, there have been lots of reasons to hunker down and hide. Betrayal of my band family by my once-beloved university, tough classes, more students with unique issues to problem-solve, a vast increase in new students to assess and place... and of course, a bigger-than-ever gauntlet of standardized tests with old and new ways to torture my sweet students.

Oh, and there's also that small human growing inside me, bringing plenty of cuteness and joy but also plenty of worries, challenges, and her own whole to-do list.

So it would be easy to hunker down and hide, easy to make excuses, easy to decide not to write. And often, I have. My Tuesdays have been too empty of writing and too full of hunkering down. When I thought ahead to March this year, I felt too much apprehension and not enough excitement.

But being a writer is not only central to my identity, but essential to my teaching. Lately, I've been feeling lost trying to teach writing without living it. I've known I need to get my writer self back.

And as March got closer, special memories of the past three Marches drifted into my mind:

  • Joy that every day would carry the excitement of Tuesday connections: dipping into digital friends' lives, being inspired by their thoughts, and being encouraged by their comments. 
  • Thinking like a writer: noticing the small moments, carefully crafting ideas into words, trying to stretch and experiment.
  • Finding the courage to share my blog with "real-life" friends and family members, and discovering that they were just as supportive and excited about my writing as my blogging friends.
  • Inviting students, friends, colleagues, and even my mom to join me in a month of reflection, connections, challenge, celebration, community and growth.
It's time to brave the cold and step back into the world. I can't wait to see what this March will bring!