Tuesday, February 28, 2017

#SOL17 The Night Before

It's the day before the March Slice of Life Story Challenge! It feels like the night before school starts, or before you go to summer camp....when you know you will see familiar faces again, and new ones, and you're about to start something exciting. Maybe a little scary. There's a thrill in the air, because life is about to shift in new ways....

I look at my March calendar and worry. March is BUSY. Report cards. My daughter's birthday. Professional events. Will I be able to carve out time each day to blog? To inspire my students to blog? To keep up with all the commenting and additional work that goes into being part of both challenges?

It always comes back to the "why." Why take on all of this extra work in a month that is already jam-packed? For me, the Slice of Life Story Challenge is about walking the walk and truly living like a writer. It's inviting students along and showing them that writing is something real people do, in their honest-to-goodness life, not only published authors but everyday folks. 

And, truth be told, there isn't a month that's NOT busy. Every day is busy. It's the noticing, the slowing down, the taking time to reflect and write that helps me appreciate my life instead of just living it. It's this one month in time, set aside, to tell my stories. 

See you at Writer's Camp! :)

Monday, February 20, 2017

#SOL17 Does Moving Up Always Mean Moving Out?

"It seems such a waste of time
If that's what it's all about

Mama if that's movin' up
Then I'm movin' out"
- Billy Joel, "Anthony's Song"

In the education world, I've noticed that most of the time, to advance professionally, you need to leave your role of being a teacher. To move up, you have to move out. You can become an instructional coach, a dean, an assistant principal, a principal, a director, an assistant superintendent, or superintendent. You can become an independent consultant or work with other consultants, visiting schools and working with teachers. You might become a professor and work with college students who wish to become teachers. There doesn't seem to be a way for a teacher who wants to stay in the classroom to advance professionally by way of different title, salary, or prestige. 

Being a classroom teacher is challenging. I teach third grade, which means I teach my 25 students every subject. Literacy, of course, has many components, of which I am responsible: reading (decoding, comprehension, fluency), word study, writing, handwriting, speaking, and listening. I also need to teach students WHY they need to be literate- why it matters in a democracy, and spark their love for reading and writing. I need to be a role model and share my passion for reading and writing. I also need to plan small group instruction for students with similar needs- often 6 different groups of children. This would be a daunting task alone, but literacy is not the only subject I teach. Math includes concept development, fact fluency, and problem solving. I need to teach social studies and science, character education, and integrate technology. And that is just curriculum. Somehow, I also need to create a caring and safe classroom community, encourage risk-taking and persistence, and differentiate my teaching to meet the needs of diverse learners. I need to get to know each student, communicate with families, refer students who have academic or behavioral concerns, and consult with the special area teachers who provide my students' services. I need to assess my students in every area, find the time to grade the assessments, and use them for the purpose of more targeted instruction. In every subject. 

I am with my students all day, except for 40 minutes when they are at a special and then 40 minutes when we get lunch. Most of the work I need to do to be ready to teach needs to happen after school. But of course, there are often meetings, tutoring, or clubs, which often does not leave much time at all. This translates to a full work bag that travels home with me every night. Like many other teachers, I come home to a family that is waiting for me. In my case, a husband and a 6 year old son and almost 4 year old daughter. By the time the family responsibilities are done for the night, there is rarely energy to take out that full work bag and make a dent in it. It travels back to school, heavier for the guilt that has been added to the bag. 

Some days, it feels very hard to be a classroom teacher.

And I'm sure there are impossibly hard days in other positions in education- but my pride says, at least those positions are ones that are higher up the hierarchy. You are seen as somebody who knows something more than the typical classroom teacher if you are the coach, the director, the administrator. You are the "lead learner." And you get to go to the bathroom whenever you like!

So, if you are a classroom teacher who wants to advance in your career- where are you to go? The answer seems to be  "out of the classroom." But once you are out, the longer you are away from the day to day teaching responsibilities, can you really understand what it is like, have empathy for the sheer impossibility of the expectations? 

Sometimes I wish there was a way for everyone who has left the classroom for a leadership position to come back to it for a year or even a trimester. I think there would be so much more empathy and understanding for those in higher positions to see how the different curricular mandates really fly in a classroom of real children. How a teacher who cares so much and wants to make a difference and is earnestly trying her very best... still finds it near impossible to do everything a teacher needs to do. 

I am a classroom teacher. It's what I've always wanted to be and who I am. I don't want to move out, so there will be no moving up for me.

What are your thoughts on the idea that teachers need to leave the classroom to advance professionally? 

Monday, February 13, 2017

#SOL17 Finally Reading Letter from Birmingham Jail

I am 37 years old, with my Masters plus 75 credits- a teacher for 15 years- and, I confess, I only just read Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail this past Saturday. I'm annoyed that nowhere in my schooling was this letter shared with me or discussed. This past weekend, the Long Island Writing Project held a workshop on argument writing, based on this text. While we read the letter with a lens on argument writing and thinking about the specific techniques King used, it was hard not to get lost in the message of this letter, especially at this juncture in history. 

This particular section of the letter led tears to spring to my eyes:

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience ...

Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 when he wrote this letter- younger than I am now. How did he get so wise in those 34 years? How did he get so strong, to be able to lead a movement with love and nonviolence? Of course I knew the "I Have A Dream" speech, but never stopped to think about what a gifted writer he was to craft that. Letter from Birmingham Jail, written partly in the margins of a newspaper, is an absolutely brilliant and moving piece of writing. I wish to know more about the man who wrote it- not just the stories I've been told about him.

Reading this letter has led me to many more questions about Martin Luther King Jr. than I had prior to being a participant in the workshop. What did his wife and children do and think when he was jailed? How did he first get involved with the civil rights movement? What did his parents and teachers see in him as a young child that would foretell his place in history? 

One of the questions we were asked at the LIWP workshop was "How do we avoid having our students perceive of the reading and writing we ask them to do as a mechanical process to be completed or avoided? (Dr. Jane Maher) In other words, how do we get students to care about what they are reading and writing, to want to know more, to be the ones asking the questions and seeking answers instead of simply answering the questions we pose? 

As I follow the news each day, I am troubled by all I don't know about our government and history. I confess to not paying very close attention to the inner workings of the government and having previously felt a sense of security that all was well. Now, I feel the need to learn more about everything- to be a more knowledgeable citizen and to be a teacher that encourages critical thinking. I want my students to ask questions and seek answers instead of simply answering the questions I've posed. I don't want to tell them what to think, but I want to read aloud texts that will help them understand another's perspective. When I read how Martin Luther King was tongue-tied trying to explain to his daughter why she couldn't attend an amusement park, I was instantly thinking about my son- the same age- and how I would feel if I had to tell him he wasn't welcome based on who he was? Such is the power of reading and writing- to move you to see life from another's vantage point. And to let that somehow change you. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

#SOL17 There's A Place For Us

"There’s a place for us, 
Somewhere a place for us, 
Peace and quiet and open air 
Wait for us 

West Side Story
Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music)

I grew up watching lots of musicals, made before my time. Bye Bye Birdie was a total favorite (I've sang versions of "I Love You Conrad" to my children when they were babies) and The Sound of Music, not to mention Thoroughly Modern Millie and My Fair Lady

Long before I read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in high school, I watched West Side Story with Natalie Wood as Maria. The music was so beautiful. My favorite song from the movie was the poignant "Somewhere." I knew Tony was going to get killed but still felt heartbroken when he did, and when the Sharks and the Jets walked off together, peacefully, following Maria's lead, it all seemed so utterly pointless that he died. Why couldn't they just be happy? What did all the hate accomplish?

These days, we are redefining what kind of place our country is. Is it a place for us- with peace and quiet and open air? Who is "us" after all? 

Another favorite musical was Jim Henson's Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas, created two years before I was born, in 1977.  Even though it is January, my children wanted to see this movie again so just yesterday, we watched it.  

In the words of Emmett Otter's Mother, "Our world says, 'Welcome, stranger.' Everybody's a friend. Favorite stories don't end, in our world...Some say our world is getting too small. I say with kindness, there's room for us all." 

These days, there is much "sound and fury....signifying nothing" (Shakespeare, Macbeth). My books, my poems, my musicals return to me and I hold onto a world where strangers are welcome and everybody's a friend. 


Monday, January 23, 2017

#SOL17 Purple With a Purpose

"Uh uh,"Megan squirmed in her car seat, unwilling to get out. My husband was taking our son, Alex, to get a haircut after his swimming lesson. Megan tagged along with them for swimming, while I stayed home to shower after my exercise class. Now, Mike wanted to take Alex to the barber and the plan was for Megan to stay with me. But Megan wasn't having it.

"Want to come with me to the nail salon?" I finally asked after the sudden inspiration. It was an errand I wanted to run but had been putting off for lack of time. This could be the perfect solution. 

Megan brightened and easily agreed, coming out of her carseat. 

I told Megan some alternative facts about the nail salon not doing nails for children (despite the price list for children on the wall- good thing she can't read yet!) and she was quite agreeable that she would just watch me get my nails done, as long as she could pick my color. 

At the salon, we walked over to the wall of colors. Her first thought was green, then orange. Nope and nope. Then she picked purple. I turned over the bottle and read the label- "Purple with a Purpose." It was a color I never would have picked for myself, but the name persuaded me. 

The nail technician asked me several times if I was sure I wanted this color. 

"Is it horrible? I finally asked her.

"Oh no..." she answered, alternative facts again. 

The thing is, sometimes it's good to do something you don't normally do, even if it just wearing purple with a purpose nail polish. Looking at my nails makes me think of Megan and going out of my comfort zone. It reminds me to keep real purpose at the heart of all I do. Soon enough, I'll be back to my predictable and more eye-pleasing pale pinks, but for now, I'm rocking the purple. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

#SOL17 The Why

"It's never too late to be what you might have been."
-George Eliot 

That quote opens up The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, one of my favorite books to read aloud to my third graders. This week, I will once again introduce a group of children to Ivan, the true-ish story of a gorilla kept in a shopping mall circus for 27 years before being released to the Atlanta Zoo. Ivan's story has changed me, each time I read it. As I'm about to embark on his story once again, those words inspire new thoughts. 

As usual, words and parts of my life swirl together and this quote came to mind as I read my  friend Sharyn's post in Our Healthy Home, a Facebook group I blogged about last week- it's a place to focus on healthy habits as a family, without a direct focus on weight loss or selling/buying a program. Sharyn has lost over 100 pounds and thus, changed her life. This morning she asked us to consider our "why"-"Why do you want to be healthier? Why is it important to you?"

I knew a line or two comment would not suffice for this topic. 

I've written about this issue before. Many times, I guess. Weight and too much of it has been a theme in my life from the start. I was the baby who ate pastina with two hands. The tubby two year old eating cake with a crown on, frozen in time in a picture that reveals my chub spilling over my bathing suit. My first Weight Watchers meeting was in third grade. I remember having to order the "diet platter" at the diner- a burger without a bun and cottage cheese (I can weep thinking about it). Thin, watery, Alba shakes while my sister got to drink creamy Carnation Instant Breakfast (she needed to gain weight. Sigh.) Dresses with elastic cut to allow my arms to fit through. Everyone's intentions were very good- to help me be healthier and thinner. 

But, what I took in was a feeling of shame. That I am out of control. That I cannot be trusted with food. That pleasure and tasty foods are bad and to be "good" you need to drink plain water and eat celery sticks. A good, hard-working student, I constantly failed the food test. I just could not seem to get the hang of self control and therefore had to wear "pretty plus" jeans. 

At any particular age in my life, I can tell you what program I was or wasn't on. Weight Watchers many times. A diet program called "New You" when I was in 7th grade. No carbs in college. Nutritionist plan during my engagement and then again after my son was born. 

At some point after I had my daughter, I just decided I could not do it anymore. Could not face dieting- counting points or calories or amounts of food. I could not take the deprivation and the feeling of failing. What was so wrong about a cup of ice cream with my children on a hot day? Why did I have to feel either guilty or deprived, depending on my choice of what to eat? 

And yet. Without a "plan", weight did creep in. There was the day my little girl ran up a hill and the road, with cars traveling on it, was on the other side. Would she run down it, into harm's way? I could not trudge up the hill fast enough. Out of shape, and petrified. She was fine, but was I?

And then there's the confidence factor. When you feel everyone looks better than you, when you have to pay so much more money to shop at a store with clothes big enough for you, when you look years older than you are because of the extra weight...is this really living your best life? Fulfilling your potential? Being the you that you might have been, if you had made the necessary changes?

So, here I am. Thinking I have believed all my life that I am an out-of-control, "bad" eater who cannot stop herself from eating. And thinking that maybe it is my beliefs about myself -who I am and what I can be- that are holding me back. Maybe it's not too late to become a person who lives in balance- who seeks healthy, nourishing foods and can also have a cup of ice cream with my kids on a hot day. Maybe I can learn to see eating well as a gift I give myself instead of punishment for being a person with no will power. 

My Why? I want to be the happiest, prettiest, healthiest me possible. I want to still be what I might have been- I want to shake off feelings of shame and failure in this area of my life. I want to be able to run up a hill if I need to. I want my family to be proud of me. I want to be proud of me. That's my why. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

#SOL17 They Are Watching

Almost every morning, I have a little sidekick who follows me into the bathroom as I attempt to do my hair and makeup. My (closer now to four ) three year old, Megan, climbs onto the toilet and watches me as I apply lotion, foundation, mascara and more. She asks for the makeup brush and mimics me, making sweeping motions on her perfect, unblemished baby skin. She wants to know what the mascara is for and how old she has to be before she can use it, too. 
When I flip over my hair to blow dry my very curly dark hair, she makes the scrunching motions on her straight golden hair. 

Other times of the day, Megan informs me she has "important work to do" and insists I let her type on the computer. Other times of day, she assembles her "students" (every stuffed animal she can grab) and lines them up to teach them a lesson. 

Though she looks almost nothing like me, Megan is, in lots of ways, a mini-me, who is watching what I do and say. 

Alex, my six year old, isn't really interested in my beauty routine, but he watches me too, notices my moods, my actions, and all that I say. 

Our children and our students are always watching. (Just found this poem by John Wooden on Vicki Davis' blog which speaks to the power of our example.)

This is a picture of me and Sharyn (and our husbands too- Sharyn's husband Evan and my husband Mike). Our husbands were best buddies in college and Sharyn and I met through them. We've been bridesmaids in each other's weddings and our children are almost exactly the same age! We've seen each other through many different life stages. 

One of my best friends, Sharyn, shared this idea in a new private Facebook group she created called "Our Healthy Home." This is the idea behind the group, in Sharyn's words: 
The group will begin on Monday, January 9, 2017. This group will be specifically geared towards helping families incorporate more healthy habits into their daily lifestyle. My sincere hope for this group is that members of the group who have children will log into the group daily with their children. There will be daily challenges that will be appropriate for all ages. This group IS NOT about weight or weight loss. There will be no "plan", there will be nothing for you to buy or do to join. Just bring yourself, your family, your open mind, and open heart. The focus in the group is purely to implement more healthy habits into your home, and stimulate conversation between parents and their children about trying some new healthy habits. You never know, you just might implement one or two regularly!
As many of you know, I grew up as a very overweight child, and grew into an overweight adult. Approximately a year and a half after the birth of my second daughter, I hit rock bottom. As hitting rock bottom often is, it was a blessing in disguise. I realized that unless I wanted my children to have an obese mom, and likely adopt the unhealthy habits I had at that time, I needed to change. I knew I could set a better example. I knew I needed to. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn't. I knew my children deserved it. I knew I deserved it. With the love and support of my husband, my family and friends, I embarked on a wellness journey that has helped me transform myself in so many ways. I have incorporated numerous healthy habits into my lifestyle. I have lost 99 pounds over the past 18 months, but more than the weight loss, I have the peace of mind knowing that I am teaching my children how to incorporate healthy habits into their lifestyle. I am teaching them that health is important; that you show your love for your self by taking good care of yourself. I am showing them that their mother believes that she is important, and that she takes care of herself. I am showing them that it is never too soon or too late to make healthy choices, and that the opportunities to make healthy choices are ALWAYS present. I know that they're watching me. I know that they're learning from me, and I hope they set the same example for my grandchildren one day.
Sharyn is one of the best people I know. Funny, smart, beautiful, and a devoted mom. In the last 18 months, she has transformed her life and her health. I love that she is taking this passion for health and using it to create a space for families to learn about a healthy lifestyle together, without the focus on weight. I, too, grew up as an overweight child and have struggled with my weight forever. With little ones watching me so closely, and many times trying to emulate me, I can do better in many areas of being a healthy individual. 
On Sunday morning, my Jazzercise class was cancelled due to the weather. I put on a fitness program and worked out in the living room, with Megan kicking and punching right next to me, swirling all around. My sidekick is always watching, which means I need to step up my game. 
Sharyn's group is free and it's not about weight loss. It is a private Facebook group and you would need to be added. In Sharyn's words:
Whether you consider yourself a "health nut" or someone who would like to dip their toe into the wellness pool, I invite you and your family to join "Our Healthy Home". I would love to support you and your family in incorporating healthy habits into your lifestyle.
(If you are interested in joining, please write your Facebook name in the comments and I will be sure you are added to the group.)

Monday, January 2, 2017

#SOL17 When The Words Don't Come

It is Monday night, which means it time for me to post my Slice of Life. This one, the first of 2017, means the first time using #SOL17. Here I sit, at the computer, and I've got NOTHING. 

I've thought about composing a letter to the stomach bug, which I've been narrowly escaping all break as friends and family have fallen ill. I had buckets ready to go, sure that me or my children would be victims after spending time on Christmas with family members that had the bug. So far, we've avoided it. (That noise is me furiously knocking on wood). But is a letter to a stomach virus really the way to kick off a new year?

I've thought of telling a story of something that happened over the holiday break. My son, Alex, and I saw "Sing!" with my sister and nephew. On another day, my nephew's jacket mysteriously disappeared from Chuckee Cheese. These were stories I could write, but...I'm not feeling it. 

I could write about how a new year makes me want to change everything right away- become super organized, fit, perfect. I organized two junk drawers and created more space in my bedroom. I finally put away earrings and necklaces that were in a heap on my dresser instead of in their proper, designated spaces in my jewelry organizer. It felt good, as I rediscovered some beautiful things I own and haven't been appreciating. 

I could write about finding a new television series to love, after not watching tv for the last....three years? This Is Us has become a favorite and over my holiday break, I caught up on the first season. (You should totally watch it if you haven't been!).

I could write about downloading Overdrive to my phone and discovering the magic of borrowing books digitally from my public library! How have I survived without this? I read First Comes Love by Emily Griffin on my phone and I think this will be the key to reading more books. I've borrowed Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and am loving it. 

I could write about how my daughter, Megan, has a history of loving and leaving her stuffed animals. My mother and I joked we could rewrite "To All The Girls I Loved Before" for Megan- "To All The Stuffies I've Loved Before." She chooses a stuffed animal to love and completely adores it- carries it everywhere, talks about it endlessly, decorates cards for it- only to have that animal replaced by a new one. There's been Monkey, Foxy, Lenny, Fluffy, and now, her newest love, Star. Pictures before Christmas show Fluffy, with a red bow decorating her ear. Pictures after Christmas show no signs of Fluffy- as Star, a Christmas gift, is now the treasured friend.

Note Fluffy in our Christmas Eve picture

Now Star is being brought to a New Years celebration

So...how does "nothing" add up to all this? While I didn't have a clear message tonight and felt stuck, I have committed to blogging here for Slice of Life and felt compelled to just START. And while this is not my finest piece of writing (let's hope), it does reflect the pieces of my life. When I look back next year, at this first post for 2017, I will remember how I was living in fear of the stomach bug, I'll remember my nephew Will's jacket going missing at Chuckee Cheese, and I'll remember that Megan's flavor of the day quickly changed from Fluffy to Star. 

Here's to showing up and writing, even when the words don't come.

Happy New Year, friends! 

Monday, December 26, 2016

#SOL16 Farewell to My OLW

"Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold. 
Happiness dwells in the soul." 

My 2016 One Little Word was Happy. 2015 ended in a very sad way with the loss of my Grandmother (GG), but she was a happy person who loved to make others happy and the word felt right. As 2016 sputters and gasps to the finish line, taking many beloved icons with it (Florence Henderson! George Michael! Almost Carrie Fisher...), I am getting ready to share my 2017 OLW. 

While "happy" won't be my word of the year, it will still be an overarching goal to keep in my life. As a teacher, happiness is too often overlooked. Our students should feel happy at school- not bored or anxious. I need to look for ways to make their days happier- and mine too. 

Happiness is an important goal for my family and personal life as well. How often do I check in with friends who make me smile and laugh? How often do I take time to send my husband a funny text during the day? Do I look for opportunities to build happiness into my children's days? Do I find activities that bring me joy and take me out of work mode?

Life is uncertain and often frightening. We don't know how long the good times will last- how long before the other shoe drops, the diagnosis is given, the phone call you dread comes. Life is also joyous and full of miracles. "Happy" might feel far away or hard to find, but it's worth finding the happy when you can...the first sip of coffee in the morning, your child's belly laugh, a soft scarf, a new tv show to watch (I've become hooked on This Is Us...). 

Here's to Happy and to looking forward to my new OLW....which I will share on Two Writing Teachers on January 7th. What was your OLW this year? Did it serve you well? Have you selected your word for 2017? 

Monday, December 19, 2016

#SOL16 Love Lives Forever

Unpacking my Christmas ornaments is almost like time traveling. The ornament I got for my son a few days before he was born at the Bellmore Fair takes me back six years ago. The ornament from our cruise to Nova Scotia brings me back to circa 2005. The Happy Engagement ornament (2007). The New Home ornament (2009). The baby girl ornaments and family of four ornaments when Megan was born in 2013. I unwrap these treasures, covered in paper towel and nestled in shoe boxes, and the memories keep me company as I hang them on our tree.

There is one ornament, in particular, that I look forward to holding in my hand each year. The little bear with the bow in between her ears. If you look very, very closely, you can still see the crack on the bottom right paw.

This bear takes me back 26 years, when I was eleven years old. My grandparents bought me this ornament because they knew I loved teddy bears. It was my thing, even at eleven years old, when you might think a person could be getting a little old for teddy bears. I loved them regardless. Grandy and Grandma gave me this ornament and somehow, someway, I dropped it. The leg shattered and I remember crying huge, sad, regretful sobs at my clumsiness and the loss of this beautiful bear ornament.

My Grandy was a patient man. He could get knots out of necklaces with a needle and he could glue back pieces of a shattered bear ornament, thus calming an inconsolable granddaughter. He made it right. 

And when I unwrap this little bear, year after year, I feel his patience, his kindness, his compassion, his goodness. I give the bear a place of honor on the tree, right up front, every year and I know love lives forever. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#SOL16 4 Years Later

It is Wednesday, not Tuesday, but here I am anyway.

I was supposed to write this post for Slice of Life Tuesday. I almost never miss a Tuesday- have made this commitment, and honestly miss writing when I don't do it. 

I could not find any time Monday to write my Slice, as is my custom. Report card time had me feeling buried at work and trying to dig out, get on top of the to do's. Tuesday morning came with an earlier than usual drive to work as I had to bring my daughter to my mother in laws for the day, since my mother has been not feeling well. By the time I got back home with Megan, it was nearing 5 o'clock. Alex had homework, there was dinner to make and then an exhaustion just hit me. Going up to bed early, I awoke a couple of hours later with my throat on fire, my ears aching, and stayed awake the rest of the night.

Diagnosis: Strep throat. 

So here I am, on a Wednesday afternoon. 

Today is the 4th anniversary of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook. I see those beautiful little faces, on boats, in front of Christmas trees, hugging siblings, so full of life. The brave and beautiful educators smile with family members, with pets, in snow, at the beach. I think of them all so often. Every time we have a lockdown drill, I remember that evil can happen. At night, when the worries sneak in before sleep, I try to wrap my head around how those families have been able to keep living and breathing. When I walked my son to school today, in his Christmas pajamas for Pajama Day, and his fingers wiggled a little goodbye as he raced into a place he feels safe and secure, I thought about how many children in Sandy Hook did the same thing four years ago? 

4 years. No real answers. No major changes in legislation. No closer to guarantees that this could never happen again. 

Today I remember the educators and students, and the only answer ever seems to be love. So, in their memory, I will be more loving today, more grateful, more forgiving, more accepting, more patient.  And I send my prayers to them, to their brave families, and to a country that needs to find the courage to say, "No more." 

Monday, December 5, 2016

#SOL16 Grit

Skate, skate, fall. Skate, fall, fall. Skate, skate, skate, fall. 


Last Friday night, we celebrated my nephew's 8th birthday at the local skating rink, The United Skates of America. The roller rink brought back unpleasant memories of the late 1980's, George Michael music blaring as I struggled to stay upright and make it to the middle of the rink, which was blessedly carpeted and a desperately needed refuge from the slippery floor. My school used to have skating nights, and I longed to glide around the rink, effortlessly, maybe even holding hands with a cute boy. Never happened. I could not skate, therefore did not skate, therefore never got better at skating...therefore avoided skating for the last, um, 24 years. 

Until now. My son, Alex, stood on wobbly legs, ready to try to skate. Nowadays, they sell these white walker type things with wheels that you can use to stabilize yourself, somewhat, as you skate. We got one for Alex and off he went. Skate, skate, fall. Skate, fall. Skate, skate, skate, fall. 

If he fell once, he fell one hundred times. 

The thing is, each time he fell, he got back up, with a smile. He kept going. He kept falling. He was a sweaty puddle, exhausted from the effort, but he didn't complain or get frustrated. He got up each time and tried again. 

I was in awe.

It was amazing.

I didn't have that type of persistence when it came to learning how to skate. It was hard and I gave up. But watching my son fall, and fall, and fall over and over again, and get up with a smile, ready to try again....I felt so proud. 

Never a big fan of the word "grit", it's honestly what came to mind as I watched him fall all night long, and get back up each and every time. 

There are moments when you shine with pride, that a child of yours has done something especially kind, or smart, or witty, or impressive. For me, watching my son fall down over and over again...and get up, over and over again....it was a shining moment that showed who Alex is. My kid has grit. And I couldn't be prouder.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

#SOL16 That Overwhelmed Feeling

That overwhelmed feeling.

That overloaded, overstuffed workbag, overwhelmed feeling.

That falling behind, can't keep up, never enough time
overwhelmed feeling.  

That report cards-are-coming, there's still so much to assess
overwhelmed feeling.

That formal lesson observation is days away and the classroom needs an extreme makeover, overwhelmed feeling. 

That holiday time is here, must stuff 100 Christmas cards into envelopes which need address labels and return address stickers, overwhelmed feeling. 

That to-do list is growing like the pile of laundry, currently multiplying like the fishes and the loaves in my basement, overwhelmed feeling.

That grumpy, grouchy, grumbly, need-to-sleep, hopefully-have-more-energy-tomorrow, resigned, overwhelmed feeling.

That 2am eyes pop open, there's so much to do, mind-racing, mind-reeling, overwhelmed feeling. 

Deep breath, focus, try to shake
That overwhelmed feeling. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

#SOL16 Megan and Our Books

(A stoat)

My daughter, Megan, is 3 ("and a half," she always reminds me) but already a big lover of books. We have our nightly routine of reading together, but I've been noticing how many of the books are becoming old friends, characters we refer to as if we know them. I guess we do.

There's Harriet Harris, from Mem Fox's Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild! (Megan can repeat the line, "Harriet Harris, what are we to do? Harriet Harris, I'm talking to you!") Another Mem Fox favorite is Koala Lou. We say together, "Koala Lou, I do love you" just like her mother repeats in the book, and I try not to choke up at the part where Koala Lou's mother hugs her for a very long time. We also enjoy Catalina Madelina (Hoopensteiner Wallendiner Hogan Logan Bogan), illustrated by Tedd Arnold. No David is a favorite, as well as Gerald the giraffe in Giraffe's Can't Dance. Beatrice Bottomwell, The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes, is a character Megan knows by name.

Recently, we read Who Is Sick Today? by Lynne Cherry. This is a fun rhyming book, full of animals and their illnesses. On one page, the book says "Young stoats with sore throats." Megan thought the stoats were adorable and wanted one for her birthday. Not that I was seriously considering a stoat (which I never heard of before), but just to find out more information, we googled stoats. Megan loved looking at all the images of stoats and wouldn't stop talking about stoats!

Her love affair with the stoat ended, though. Megan wanted to know what stoats eat, and was rather horrified to discover they eat bunnies!  She then wanted to know what animals eat stoats (dogs,foxes, and large cats). 

It's amazing how simply reading a book together at bedtime leads to such interesting conversations, questions, and even research. All of the language and thinking that was involved in discussing a stoat was rich and meaningful, bringing new words and ideas to Megan's growing schema. 

There are not many things I can pass onto my children- I don't know how to cook or bake, I'm not great with a checkbook, I can't sew, I'm terrible at sports. But, what I can do, the best thing I can do- is pass on my love of reading. I can introduce them to books and characters and make sure reading is always a part of their lives.   

Monday, November 14, 2016

#SOL16 Each Kindness

“There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story. ”

I am a teacher. 

Long before the 2016 Presidential election, I believed in kindness and character. I believed in books to build empathy and perspective, to break down walls that divide "us" and "them." I believed building relationships is the key to a classroom community and the risk-taking that comes when everyone feels accepted and safe. 

There is so much noise everywhere now. 

So much hate and name-calling and painting huge groups of people with labels. Labels create distance and dehumanize the very people you are describing.  If we were to sit with each other, over a cup of tea, could we not find some common ground? If we were to listen to each others stories, might we not empathize, at least a bit? 

Maybe it is Pollyanna to think that way. Maybe many of the adults of this generation are too far gone, too steeped in opinions and hate, too certain of being right to entertain the idea that someone else's truth might be worth considering. Maybe there will be no bridge-building now, no olive branches, no compromises.

 I grew up listening to my staunch Republican grandfather debate my mostly liberal dad over a bowl of pasta at Sunday dinner. Sometimes there were raised voices, but there was always respect. There were handshakes and laughter after- they were people who cared about each other, acknowledging that they had different philosophies and, at the end of the day, that was okay. It used to feel safe to see things differently than someone- you could still like each other and even respect each other, knowing that you disagreed. It doesn't feel like this is the case anymore. 

But back to being a teacher. 

Today, my third graders sat down in a circle at our Morning Meeting. Normally, we do a simple greeting where each child says hello to the child next to him/her, by name. This morning, I challenged my students to think about a little known fact about themselves to share with the class. We all shared something we thought others might not know about us...part of our story. 

Our poem of the week was Shel Silverstein's Hug O' War. I noted that Silverstein repeated "everyone" many times during the poem- why did they think he did that? Students answered, "because everyone should be together." 

After our poem, we talked about our word of the week- "empathetic". What does it mean to feel someone's feelings in your own heart? How does that influence how you treat others? We discussed why being empathetic would be a positive trait to possess. 

Finally, at the end of our Morning Meeting, I read aloud the beautiful (and sad) book Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. Each kind act, done or undone, has ripples in the world. 

Tomorrow, Trudy Ludwig will visit our school. Trudy's books are powerful examples of kindness and ways to positively express yourself and your feelings. 

I hope all these experiences are like seeds that will take root in my students' hearts. I hope they will choose kindness whenever they can and take the time to hear another's story without slapping a label on the person, dehumanizing them. 

I am a teacher, and this is what I can do. I can teach my students to listen to each other, to be empathetic, to choose kindness.  I can do my best to model these actions, to listen before I snap to judgement, to show respect to everyone, to create a classroom where everyone's voice matters. 

As Ram Dass said, "We are all just walking each other home." 

Monday, November 7, 2016

#SOL16 Lesson From Piper

Have you seen the Disney Pixar Short film Piper

If not, go watch...I'll wait. :)

I watched this movie today with a few of my students who stay after school for "Club Success" (formerly called "tutoring" but this feels way more positive for the kids who are asked to stay). After we watched Piper, we wrote about the movie and then shared our writing. Each of the three students who wrote touched upon the idea that Piper had to learn how to get the food for herself. Some students mentioned the pride she felt after she learned how to survive the big waves and find food.  We talked about the mistakes she made and how they helped her to learn. 

I think this video is a MUST WATCH for a few reasons. 

1- It really makes you think about the process of learning and how uncomfortable it can feel when you move to trying something new for the first time. 
2-Piper learned by her failed attempts and eventually by finding a mentor and trying his strategy.
3-When Piper finally does get the hang of finding her food, she generously shares with the others.
4- It's a super cute video and just the right length to show students. 

So...parallels to teaching....sometimes it does feel unsettling to have to figure things out for yourself. It might be tempting to say, "Just give me the program that says what to teach when" because, in many ways, that's like the Mama Bird feeding the baby. The little bird just sits and takes it in, with no effort at all. It was when Piper had to figure things out for herself that she eventually learned, felt the pride, and then shared with the others. 

When we struggle with real issues in our classroom, like when the majority of your class fails a test, or does poorly on an assessment, we feel like Piper when the wave crashes over her. Lost. Frustrated. Like Failures. But it's in the picking yourself up, the finding of mentors, the trying out new strategies, that the real learning can happen, the lasting learning. And when we learn, we share. 

Grateful to share in this community of generous educators and writers. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

#SOL16 The 4000th follower...

It seems the old adage (sort of) is true: A watched Twitter feed will not hit 4,000 followers.

I have 3,997 followers on Twitter...no wait, down to 3,995. Now back to 3,996. 

Normally, I pay very little attention to the number of "followers" I have on Twitter. For a long time, Twitter used to freeze my requests to follow people because I was following way more people than were following me. But, when the numbers get close to hitting a new milestone, I get a surge of satisfaction to see a nice, round number. 500. 1000. And so on. 

The other day, I couldn't believe that I was approaching 4,000 people following me on Twitter. And so I've kept my eye on it, waiting for the magic moment that 4,000 would appear. 

But, to my dismay, the number keeps going down...then up one...then down again. I'm floating in the 3,990-3,998 zone and I can't help but wonder why some people followed me only to unfollow me? While I know it's ridiculous, I feel slightly stung at the rejection. I'm sure these number fluctuate all the time- I'm just not paying attention. But as I check on the number now and then, when 3,997 goes down to 3,995 I wonder why two people out there suddenly split.

As always, a book to the rescue. Megan, my precocious 3 ("And a half!" she would add) year old, requested Giraffes Can't Dance, proclaiming it her "favorite." In this book, Gerald the Giraffe is worried about his dancing ability. His fears are confirmed when all the animals mercilessly make fun of him. He runs off, ashamed and sad, until he meets a cricket who plays a beautiful tune that inspires Gerald. Alone, Gerald feels the music and dances like no one is watching, no longer worried about impressing anyone, just enjoying the feeling of lifting his hooves to the tune. Of course, the animals do see him dance and are taken with how confident and happy he is dancing.

The moral: Dance like no one's watching. Tweet like no one's following. Do what is in your heart and feels right- don't worry about making an impression (or gaining a few followers to hit 4,000). If all the "followers" were gone tomorrow, would I still tweet? Absolutely. 

But, hey, if you know a few people who might be interested in following someone new on Twitter, send them to @MrsSokolowski. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#SOL16 Petrified at Hershey Park

I am late to the party today. I normally write my Slice by late Monday evening, or Tuesday morning at the very latest. I thought this might be the week I have to wave the white flag and skip a Slice. October has been filled with memorable, fabulous moments and events- but I'm feeling behind in everything and am trying to "dig out" as a colleague of mine used to always say when asked how she was doing. 

But, here it is, almost 9pm on Tuesday evening, and I'm feeling the pull to write a Slice. I need to work on the first draft of a personal narrative to use as a mentor for my third graders. I've promised them the story of how I lost Alex at Hershey Park this summer. So, here it is- seems I can't keep away from Slicing after all. 

Tentative Title: Petrified at Hershey Park

"Do you have him?"
My friend Evan was walking quickly towards me, a note of panic in his voice. I felt my stomach drop. 

"No, he's on the Lazy River. Mike was going to get him, " I told Evan, who had his own little girls along with him. My daughter, Megan, was in her stroller. It was a scorching hot day at Hershey Park and we had just been floating in the Lazy River- my husband, Mike, my son Alex and daughter Megan and our friends Evan, Sharyn, and their 2 daughters. Well, maybe not floating- more like Megan hanging onto my neck for dear life, nearly choking me, as I tried to navigate a giant tube without being able to see where I was going. First chance I got, Megan and I exited the Lazy River, and I gave instructions to my husband, Mike, to catch up to Alex who had hopped in a tube and started down the river ahead of us. 

"He's not there. We looked everywhere," Evan said, now looking quite panicked. Sharyn, his wife, and one of my best friends came then. 

"We didn't see him in the Lazy River. Mike is looking," she explained, and I am now fully, completely terrified.

My Alex. My almost six year old who just learned to swim this summer. My happy, tan-summer-kissed boy, who just the night before gave his sister the last piece of candy. My heart-of-gold boy. Where could he be? Did he leave the river without us? Is he walking around the park, lost? Did someone take him? Oh my God- what if someone took him? They have to shut down the park.

"We need to find security." Did I say that? I don't know. But in a minute, a security guard is standing before me and I am willing myself to say the words that my son, my world, is somehow lost and we need to find him NOW. We need to shut down the park. Can you close all the exits? 

The security guard is not very concerned. He doesn't think we can shut down the exits. He wants to know what Alex looks like and I just want to cry describing my son. What if I never see him again? How will I breathe, walk, leave this park? 

Poor Megan- I hand her to Sharyn. I need to go and find Alex. I walk/run to the Lazy River and as I approach, I see my husband and then Alex, ALEX!, still in a tube. Apparently, he was on the river the whole time, had been so happy and relaxed floating, he didn't realize we all left. Mike stood on the bridge and watched and spotted him. 100% fine. 

The tears came then. For the petrified feeling that my worst fear had come true and then the rush of gratitude that there was Alex before me, still here, still safe, still mine to hug and hold. It was the worst five minutes of my life, thinking Alex was somehow lost, might never be found. I shake still thinking about it. Writing this, tears still come to my eyes, remembering how scared I was, then how grateful I felt that my son was safe and sound. 

In a minute, your life can change forever. I'm grateful mine didn't. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

#WhyIWrite #SOL16 #DigiLitSunday

On the morning my beloved grandfather, Grandy, passed away, I drove home from his house, with words filling my mind and heart. We knew he was "on his journey" as the hospice nurses told us, and so my mother and I slept at my grandparents' house that last night. Grandy was in a deep sleep, in a hospital bed in his room. I remember, at 20 years old, I was wearing a nightgown with dogs on it, sleeping on the couch in the den. I recall my mother waking me up, saying Grandy was gone, she had heard his last breath. I remember when they came to take him away- I couldn't watch, stayed in the den as they carried him out of the house he loved so much, past the garden he tended with so much care. 

When I walked in the door after that drive home, I went straight to the computer and typed. I composed his eulogy as I drove, and as I sat at the computer, my tribute to Grandy took form. I found a poem, Tribute on the Passing of a Very Real Person, which was the closing to my eulogy. Standing in the church and reading it aloud on the day of Grandy's funeral was one small thing I could do to honor him after a lifetime of being blessed by his presence.

This is why I write. 

Since then, I've written wedding toasts, letters of recommendation, poems, cards, songs, letters, blog posts. Last December, another eulogy for one of the dearest persons in my life, my Grandma (Grandy's wife). 

Life hands us many moments. Big moments, small moments, life-altering times and times when we pause our own life just to notice. Writing is a tool for all the moments- it allows you to honor those who deserve loving tributes, whose lives mattered so very much. It allows you to celebrate those taking big leaps into new futures or new relationships or bringing a new life into this world. Your written words are you recognizing and acknowledging these moments, as only you can, through your perspective, your unique lens. Your writing is a gift.

Sometimes it is a gift to yourself. It's your way of processing life, your worries, your hopes, your frustrations, your passions. Becoming a blogger has been such a gift in my life. It's allowed me to catch moments before they become memories, to grow in my thoughts and ideas about teaching, to hear the stories of other bloggers in our community. Each week, as I read Slice of Life posts, I am changed by what I read. Stories fill my mind and heart and I remember these stories, and though I've never met most of the bloggers, I feel we are friends. I go back to them. Bonnie's letters to Tuvia. Mary Ann's bravery as she blogs so vulnerably about life after losing Rob. Dana's stories of the moments with her daughters. Barbara's tales of her adventures in retirement, her travels, her nature walks, her relationship with her daughter. Julieanne's memorable story of being a child at swimming class, overhearing an unkind conversation. Michelle's honesty and passion for being a writer. Stacey's moments as she "raises a literate human" (now two humans!) Carrie's tale of a young student coping with a tragic loss. And so many more stories that have captivated my heart, like favorite books I've read- these blog posts live in me. 

I'm so glad that others write, because I am grateful to read works that make me feel deeply and feel grateful to be alive, despite all the ugliness out there. This weekend, I read and fell in love with Peter Brown's The Wild Robot. I am a better person for reading this book and knowing the main character, Roz. 

And so, I breathe, I live, I read, I write. I try to make sense of things. I try to be grateful for people. I try to reflect, question, wonder, get to the other side of the confusion by writing. I want my children to know, through my words, how much I love them. I want to be a better me, and do my part to make a better world, through my words.  This is why I write. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

#SOL16 Grateful for the Seasons

And just like that, a new season is here.

I am grateful for this season. 
Vibrant, Crayola-blue skies, golden Libra sun.
Orange pumpkins perched on porches.
Hoodies with soft fleece lining, zipped up.
Leaves drifting, dancing down to waiting lawns.
Flip flops rested and boots back in rotation.
Retiring sun slipping away earlier each day.
Thick, cozy blankets tugged up during chilly nights.
Costumes purchased and trick or treat bags ready.
Pumpkin spice everywhere, in everything. 

I am grateful for seasons changing,
for leaves turning vibrant colors.
I'm grateful for the beauty and even grateful
for when the trees are bare
because the promise of spring is there too,
knowing that pinks, purples, yellows and whites
will fill our town streets again.

I am grateful for rainy, dreary days 
that give way to the most spectacular autumn days.
I am grateful for seasons changing
and the opportunity to notice life changing too.

I am grateful for this season in my life,
and all the seasons that came before, 
and all the seasons yet to be.

There is beauty in all of it.

I am grateful for the seasons.