Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Finding comfort in a time of sorrow from the pages of a book

Last week I received the devastating news of the unexpected death of a former student. He was 18 years old. Headed to college. He had a bright future ahead of him.

This news shook me to my very soul. All of our students touch our lives in some way, but he was one of those kids who sticks out so vividly in my memory. He had a great sense of humor, but he also could be really thoughtful and profound and he always made me smile. The phrase "with a heavy heart" was not figurative for me upon hearing the news. I literally felt a weight of sadness in my chest for a good 24 hours afterwards.

Yesterday I attended this young man's funeral visitation and to say it was hard was an understatement. I didn't know what to say to his family, friends, and my former students other than to give them hugs and say I wish I were seeing them under better circumstances. I will never forget the feeling of hugging one particular student yesterday. I had just seen her at 8th grade graduation back in June. She had just graduated from high school and was glowing. Her hug only a few weeks ago was quick, light, and joyful. It was full of all of the excitement and promise of what the world had in store for her. Yesterday's hug on the other hand, was heavy, lingering, and full of sorrow. There were no words spoken between us. Our embrace said everything.

Somehow, through it all, I managed to keep myself together, even when hugging his younger brother, who was also a student of mine and who made me smile, laugh, and ponder in equal measure. For someone who cries at the drop of a hat, this behavior was unusual for me. But as I tried to make sense of a life gone too soon, I found myself taking comfort in a book. I started to think about Matt Miller The Boy in the Black Suit and how working in a funeral home and constantly being in the presence of grief helped him process his own. So as I sat in the church, I immediately went into observation mode. My way of coping and keeping it together was to almost step outside myself and take comfort in knowing that others were trying to make sense of it all, too. That we were not alone in our sadness and questioning as to why this had to happen. So I am grateful to Jason Reynolds for Matthew Miller, a young man whose poise and wisdom belies his years. It just goes to show you that books can sometimes touch us and give us comfort us in ways we least expect.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Being openly critical is necessary for our school communities to thrive


I saw this tweet last night and the wheels immediately started turning. I hope if/when I ever say critical things about my school community (in the context of my school community. I'm not going to publicly air grievances on my blog or other social media spaces), others understand it's because I love it and want it to be better. Education is built on the idea that we teach our students to think deeply and critically. If we don't question policies and practices, then are we really educators at heart?

I think oftentimes teachers are scared into silence by administrators who feel threatened by those who speak up. Teachers often hear an iteration of this sentiment: "Well if you don't like it, you don't have to work here,"  in an attempt to keep order and shut the conversation down. But we can't let those attempts at intimidation scare us. We need to stand up and say, "But I don't want to work somewhere else. I want to work here. And it's because I love this community and am committed to making it better that I am choosing to speak up." We need to communicate to our school leadership that being vocally critical does not equate to being discontent. It means we are committed to making our school a better place to work and learn. If we as teachers aren't speaking up, then I don't know if we can call ourselves teachers. Our very presence is meant to challenge and provoke. If we just sit idly by, then we are not doing our job. Because as Kate Messner writes in her poem Revolution for the Tested,  "An educated person is so much harder to enslave." And as Pernille Ripp evangelized at nErDcampMI this year, "No child is helped when we protest in silence."

So speak up. Question. Use your outside voice. It's what we're meant to do. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What a hotel manager in Costa Rica taught me about being a teacher

I recently returned home from a glorious trip to Costa Rica with my husband. One of the places we traveled while there was the Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast. We stayed at a lovely, quirky hotel called La Mansion Inn. One of the best parts of staying at this hotel was the friendly, accommodating staff, especially the manager, Robert.

On our first full day at La Mansion, we spent a better part of an hour talking with Robert and he is quite the character. He's a "let me tell you a story" kind of a guy. And before you know it, one story turns into two, turns into twelve and now you've just spent over an hour listening to his life story, which is nothing short of fascinating. Robert is an old Italian guy from Brooklyn. If you want to try to picture him in your mind, think celebrity chef Robert Irvine but with a Brooklyn accent instead of a British accent. He used to be a very successful business man in New York, but guys he did business with? Let's just say he's lucky to still be alive today. He came to Costa Rica because 9/11 took such a toll on him that he couldn't handle the stress of the city anymore. Robert is one of those people every writer dreams of meeting because he's a character that is just begging to grace the pages of someone's work of fiction.

Robert's office was the hotel lobby, always making himself available to guests
But here is what Robert, a hotel manager in Costa Rica, taught me about how to be a better teacher. From all appearances, Robert didn't seem to have an office or desk. He sits at a coffee table in the lobby, waiting for guests to come sit down so he can chat with them, or he just makes himself available if they have questions. Every guest knows who Robert is and that they can come to him because he goes out of his way to talk to everyone and make them feel like they matter. This got me thinking about what I am doing or not doing in the classroom to be this accommodating to my students. Do I hide behind my desk, implying that the work I have to do there is more important than they are? Do I seek students out to find out what their needs are or do I just wait for them to come to me?

I know Katherine Sokolowski has written about getting rid of her teacher desk, and I like her reasoning behind it, but at the time, I still wasn't entirely convinced I was ready to do it. In fact, I'm still not entirely ready, for the simple fact that I share a classroom and I don't think it's fair to tell my teaching partner (who uses the space in the morning and I use it in the afternoon), "Hey, I want to get rid of this desk. What do you think about that?" But, even without actually physically removing the desk from the room, I can find ways to stop chaining myself to it when kids are working quietly (or not so quietly). I can make a commitment to immerse myself in the classroom space rather than holing myself up behind my desk. I can make sure to interact with students rather than always "taking a break" when I'm done "on stage." And I can plant a seed and encourage other teachers to stop using their desk as a crutch the way I have been.

So here's me planting a seed: I challenge all teachers -- and administrators! -- to really think about what the posture of sitting behind a desk says to students and staff. What could we do to better foster relationships if we made ourselves available in a shared space instead of our personal, "off-limits" space?  I am challenging myself to do this for the upcoming school year and I hope you will join me.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Monday, July 27, 2015

Giveaway for teachers and school librarians: ARC of Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Usually I do book giveaways on my book blog, but I would like to tailor this one specifically to teachers and school librarians, so I thought I'd host this one over here on my teaching blog.

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Katherine Applegate's newest middle grade novel, Crenshaw, at #nErDcampMI. Crenshaw is both heartbreaking and hopeful. It is a book that pairs beautifully with the realities of  Eve Bunting's Yard Sale along with the emotion and imagination of The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat. 

Because I teach 8th grade and I have minimal space for a classroom library since my classroom is also a computer lab, I would like Crenshaw to float on to another worthy teacher. So in order to enter this giveaway, you will need to provide a school email account. 

Terms and conditions:
You must be a teacher or school librarian and have a U.S. mailing address
One winner will be selected
Use the Rafflecopter widget to enter

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Owning Up -- #semicolonEDU

CR 2015
On the surface you appear to see moments of contentment
For the past ten days my husband and I have been away on vacation in beautiful Costa Rica. We had many adventures like zip lining and repelling down waterfalls, but we also took time to relax by the pool, in hot springs, or in the hammock on our hotel room balcony.

The trip was fantastic, and if you follow me on one or more of my social media spaces, you likely saw me smiling and content. What you didn't see was what was the storm roiling beneath the surface.

The day before we left for our trip I had a panic attack. And a few days before that I had one, too. And a few weeks before that.

They seem to be coming more frequently these days. And it wasn't until recently that I realized that I actually am struggling with anxiety.

For the longest time I thought I was just an overly-emotional, irrational person. I had no idea that what I had actually had a name. Inspired by my brave friends who have shared their own struggles with anxiety and depression, like Nick Provenzano who helped spur the #semicolonEDU conversation, I have decided it's time to share mine.

As I said before, it wasn't until recently that I even realized that I battle with anxiety, but now that I am aware of it, I aim to seek help for it. I am starting to see the correlation between the digestive ailments I've had for so many years and the worsening of my anxiety.

So for those of you out there like me who might not know that your battle is something you can seek help for, here are some of the little ways anxiety manifests in my daily life:

  • Feeling tense when strangers walk behind me or beside me on the street
  • Stuttering/stumbling over my words or talking really fast
  • Not talking at all -- needing to be quiet even when people ask me questions
  • Nit-pickiness
  • Hypersensitivity to noise and crowds of people
  • The need to get somewhere RIGHT NOW for fear of ________ <-- Insert illogical thought here
  • Feeling the need to get home after eating out of fear my digestive system wreaks havoc on me in a public place

CR 2015
Working on owning up to those other, less flattering emotions

Now that I am aware of this, I am beginning to make peace with it. Not only that, but learning more about my anxiety is helping me to better explain my needs to my husband, who by some miracle, has stuck beside me despite not understanding my feelings (How could he? I didn't even understand my feelings!) But just the thought of putting these words out into the world is making me anxious. However, if it weren't for others sharing their stories, I would never have realized that I, too, have one to share with the world and thus I feel I have a duty to be open and honest, not only with myself, but with others. I have to remember that my One Little Word for 2015 is Brave, so here's me being brave. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It's just a part of who I am and now that I've named it, I can begin to start to manage it. So in the words of Joe Mazza, another leader in the #semicolonEDU conversation, "Let's stop faking it." So here's me. Keeping it real.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dogs are people, too

I am a dog lover through and through. If you don't like dogs, there's a good chance I probably won't like you. I'm of course being hyperbolic here, but there's a teensy weensy bit of truth to that statement.

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram or are friends with me on Facebook, the first sentence of this post is not news. I post pictures of my dogs what seems like every day. Since I have no human Frank and Guenterchildren (other than my students), my two pugs, Frank and Guenter, have become my babies.

But I've recently become very aware that my babies are no longer babies anymore. Their muzzles are graying and they move more slowly than they used to. But I think what has really heightened my awareness of their mortality is buying dog food. Now that they are over eight years old, they have moved into senior dog food, and for toy breeds, there is not a big bag of senior dog food available on the shelf. At first my husband was frustrated by this and wanted to see if there are bigger bags we can order. But it suddenly hit me: the bags are small because they're SENIOR dogs. If you buy a big 20 lb bag of food, you might not make it through the whole thing. So every time I buy dog food now, I find myself faced with their impending mortality.

Frank and Guenter
Both my dogs turn ten this year and while they are currently in fairly good health, I've come to realize I don't have many more years left with them. So I find myself kissing the tops of their heads a little more frequently, and snuggling with them a little more often. I look in their big, pleading eyes and decide to turn off the computer and take them for a walk more often than I used to -- short ones of course. They don't have the stamina for long ones anymore.

It is my firm belief that dogs just make life better. They remind me what loyalty and unconditional love really look like. When I'm having a bad day, they remind me that there's something worth smiling about. I recently read the cartoon collection Dogs are People, Too by Dave Coverly, and while a comical title, there's a wee bit a truth to that sentiment. To me a house is just not a home without a dog.

Now if you'll pardon me, I need to turn my computer off and take my boys for a walk.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Celebrate Past, Present, and Future

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a very special celebration. It was for the 25th anniversary of my former piano teacher's school of music. And I was one of her original students from way back in 1990.

To say that her guidance impacted the course of my life would be an understatement. She is such a kind, passionate musician, but more importantly, she understands her students. She knew that I needed music in my life as an emotional outlet for all of the joy, pain, and frustrations of growing up. She knew I didn't care about scales and proper fingering (though she gently but firmly made me learn those things) and if I didn't love a piece of music she suggested for me, she knew I wouldn't practice it. So for more than ten years, she let me navigate, while she steered me in the right direction.

And because Tracey was such a gracious, giving teacher, students who performed at her recitals and local music competitions never felt like rivals. We had a camaraderie of support for each other. And it was because of that camaraderie that a fellow student introduced me to the man who is now my husband. So not only did Tracey's teachings impact the person I am today, but every day I continue to see how being a part of her music school altered the course of my life. The frequent sentiment that many current and former students expressed yesterday was that Tracey was/is more than a teacher; she also felt like part of your family. I'm so grateful that Tracey was and is a part of mine.