Tuesday, December 29, 2015

You Should Be A Writer #SOL15

"You should be a writer," she says, hugging me through the tears as we stand outside the church on a crisp December Monday morning.  She was my Grandma's neighbor for many years and the daughter of one of her best friends, who passed away on another December day a few years ago. 

Moments earlier, I had bowed by the altar near my Grandmother's casket, climbed the steps, paper in hand. I adjusted the microphone and saw the faces of my family and some friends who made the journey.  It was not a packed church. There was silence. And I began, with a composure that must have been a gift of courage from above, as I am rarely composed in the face of such sadness. 

It was a special honor to write about my Grandma, to honor the beautiful life she led and the love she gave to so many.  To write something and then to stand in church and read it to the family and friends gathered.  It was one small kindness I could give back to her after a lifetime of kindnesses she gave to me. 

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about being a writer, even if you're never published, even if you're never famous or rich from your writing.  At the end of the book, she writes this:

"So why does our writing matter, again?" they ask.

Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh at ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.  We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on the ship."

"You should be a writer," she says and in my heart, I know I am. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Pal and a Confidante #SOL15

"Thank you for being a friend,
Travel down the road and back again.
Your heart is true, 
You're a pal and a confidante."
-"Golden Girls" theme song

When I was a little girl, my sister, Christine, and I would sometimes sleep over our grandparent's house.  We called it staying at the "hotel" and it was a treat! Often we would first go out for Chinese food (I would drink too much tea and eat too many noodles with duck sauce- my favorite!) and then go back to Grandma and Grandy's cozy "hotel." We would change into pajamas and Grandy would open the bed tucked away in the sofa in the den.  Then Grandma would put fresh smelling sheets on the bed and at 9:00, we would watch "Golden Girls" together. 

My childhood is filled with memories of my grandparents- their porch in the summer, Christmas Eves around their sparkling tree, Sunday dinners, and celebrations of all kinds. Being picked up from half-days of school by our grandparents and going to Burger King. School concerts and awards nights with them beaming in the crowd.  

When I was 20 years old, my Grandy passed away. It had been a horrible summer where he got sicker and sicker laying in the hospital.  Everyone was working but me, a college student, so I would pick up my Grandma and drive her to the hospital to be with Grandy.  We drove through Eisenhower Park and ate frozen yogurt in the hospital cafe. I kept trying to see the silver lining and believed Grandy could get better, but Grandma knew he wouldn't. They had such a beautiful love story and losing him was so painful for her, but what I will remember always is her courage and the way she kept on going and kept on seeking out happy times.  Right before we walked down the aisle at my Grandy's funeral, when the music started and the tears welled and we almost lost it, she said that we had to be strong like Jackie Kennedy was strong when the President died. She walked down the aisle like a lady. 

Sixteen years my Grandma lived without my Grandy. In those years, I graduated from college and graduate school. My sister graduated from law school. There were engagements and weddings and babies born and christened. My Grandma got to be a Great Grandma to three children. There were weddings and parties and birthdays and holidays. There were Wednesday dinners, with delicious salads to start and something different to eat each week, lovingly prepared.  There were countless phone calls and chats on the porch.  There was advice and guidance and wisdom. 

Today my Grandma passed away.  She went into the hospital last Tuesday and less than a week later she has passed away.  She was 89 years old.  She had shopped on QVC for our Christmas gifts and had wrapped them before getting sick. I wanted to go after work today to say goodbye but by the time my class holiday party had ended, she had already passed away. Here's what I would have said to her if I had the chance:

Grandma, thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being there for me through everything, for having a happy nature and being so kind and generous to everyone. Thank you for all the sleepovers, all the dinners, all the chats, all the love.  Thank you for adding so much joy to my life.  I will always be grateful for you, always love you, never forget you.  I hope that you are dancing in Heaven with Grandy and surrounded by all your family and friends that you had to say goodbye to in life.  I can't imagine how happy you would be to see your parents again and your grandparents! Your brother, your cousins, your best friends. They surely missed you the way we will miss you every single day. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Black Cloud Kind of Night #SOL15

It's a black cloud kind of night.

My beloved Grandmother is facing some health challenges.  At almost 90, nothing is to be taken lightly. 

It is the horrific anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook. All of those precious lives gone in an instant. Grief so unimaginable.

Country singer Joey Feek, who is dying of Stage 4 cervical cancer, attempts to play and teach sign language to her baby with Down Syndrome. The pictures make me cry.

Sadness envelopes me tonight. Such a sad Slice of Life, but I guess the truth is, some slices are just sad. Some slices cannot be sweetened by platitudes and promises of brighter mornings. I won't stay here for long, in this place of darkness, but tonight I reside. 

Tonight I am angry about a world where a child is dropped off at school and gunned down moments later. 

Tonight I'm gutted by the unfairness of a new mother to a child with special needs dying of cancer. Why some lives are cut short.

Tonight I'm worried for my Grandma. 

Tonight I feel so far behind in everything, in every way. 

It's a black cloud kind of night. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Tale of Molly Mouse #SOL15

I first met Miss Molly Mouse when my son, Alex, was 4 months old.  Play Hooray, a group that provides entertainment for children through birthday parties and other venues, was running some sessions for babies at my local library.  I was anxious to get out and meet other moms and provide stimulation for my 4 month old.  He wasn't as interested in being stimulated. I still remember "Dancing Queen" blasting, maracas shaking, and Alex sleeping away in my lap.  

The star of Play Hooray, however, is the puppet Molly Mouse.  Molly has skirts for every holiday and season and she lives in a box that resembles the Dunkin' Donuts munchkin box.  We discovered that an elderly mother of the Play Hooray entertainers hand sews all of Molly's skirts! 

When my daughter, Megan, was born, I knew Molly Mouse would be in her future.  I was back to work, so my mom would take Megan to her Play Hooray class.  Here is Megan, a couple of years ago, enjoying her time: 

For Megan's first Christmas, I knew we needed our own Molly Mouse to live at our house! Lucky for us, Molly was for sale, in addition to her munchkin box house and additional skirts for purchase.  I bought her flag skirt, balloon skirt, ladybug skirt, Halloween skirt, Christmas skirt, autumn skirt, and heart skirt. Before Megan could talk, I knew how smart she was because I would just mention the name "Molly Mouse" and she would crawl away, determined, and come back holding Molly! For a while, Molly was Megan's favorite friend.  In time however, she was replaced by the princesses, especially Elsa. 

Alex and Molly have had their ups and downs. Molly has taken to calling him "Buster" which aggravates him to no end.  When I say Molly is talking, please don't misunderstand- it is me talking, with Molly perched on my hand.  My children fully believe that Molly is speaking and even ask me to tell her things, which is pretty hilarious, really. 

Most recently, Molly has been providing lots of laughs by asking incessantly for cheese.  One of the games Alex and Megan like to play is asking Molly what she wants and when she replies gleefully, "Cheese!" they laugh and try to find cheese for her. The game can go on and on.  After a long, exhausting teaching day, there are times when the very last thing I want to do is put that mouse on my hand and make her beg for cheese.  But, it does make them smile and laugh so mostly I do it.  Alex has asked me to inform Molly Mouse that he does  not like to be called Buster.  Molly has since taken to calling Megan "Busterette" and to date, Megan has not issued a complaint.

I never thought a stuffed mouse would be so near and dear to my heart and hold so many memories but Molly Mouse has become a fixture at our house with her sassy skirts and cheese loving ways!

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up #SOL15

This month, my book club read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. It was a book that inspired a great discussion and confessions about our cluttered, messy ways. 

The author advises you to only keep items that spark joy. She invites you to almost personalize your relationship to your items, like thanking your shoes for their hard work when you put them away each day! When something isn't useful anymore or doesn't spark joy, she suggests you thank the object for its role in your life and then discard/donate it. Some things were hard to imagine doing, like emptying the contents of your handbag each day and putting every book you own on the floor to decide if it sparks joy or not. (Um, not doing that.)

I am a person with a lot of stuff and a person who holds onto a lot of stuff.  I somehow wonder how I would ever change these jaded ways for good, but Marie Kondo swears if you use her method, you would never be cluttered or disorganized again.  With the busy Thanksgiving weekend, it wasn't a great time to dive into organizing, but I was inspired from my book club session and decided to tackle one folder in one drawer of our file cabinet. 

The folder held all my high school newspapers and literacy magazines where I was a contributing author. I have not read these in years but the thought of parting with them was sad.  I recently started using the app Artkive since my children have been bringing home tons of art projects from preschool each week.  Artkive allows you to take pictures of the art projects and save them in a file for each child.  You can eventually make books and other projects with pictures of the artwork, while not having the actual artwork around.  I created an Artkive folder for myself and took pictures of all my articles.  It was really fun going down memory lane and revisiting these things I wrote over 18 years ago.  It's funny that I never really considered myself a "writer" but always loved writing and have really good memories and associations from being part of the school newspaper. The article below was mine, when I was "Kathleen Neagle" (my maiden name). Front cover story! :)

Some take aways from reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: It's okay to let go of things you have outgrown or do not need anymore.  No one needs extra buttons or old checkbooks. Your items should spark joy. Start with organizing your clothes, then your books, then your papers, then you miscellaneous items, and finally your mementos/photos because those are the hardest to let go. 

I love being part of a book club and reading a book each month that I probably would never have known about or read if given the choice. The friendship, discussion, and yes, snacks, all make for a renewing night out. Some of the most interesting discussions happened over books I was reluctant to read and many of the books we've read have stayed with me long after we read them.  Being part of a book club allows me to stretch as a reader, think new thoughts, and even offers the chance at a tidier life!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Bah Humbug #SOL15

It might say something about my nature that as a little girl, I would start the Christmas countdown sometime in late October.  Cutting strips of red and green construction paper, I would create a humongously long Advent chain, weeks before Advent was even set to start.  A blue link at the top meant Christmas Eve and the final link, the yellow one, meant Christmas day.  Every night, I would tear off another link, knowing I was a little bit closer to the magic of Christmas.

So when did I start dreading the Christmas season? There, I said it.  I know, there are entire songs and movies and plays written about grumps like me who aren't in the holiday spirit. It's ironic that as a kid, Christmas couldn't come fast enough, but as a grown-up, I am resentful of how it is has invaded the fall. Sirius has been playing holidays songs while I still had Halloween candy in a pumpkin and when I had some time to shop on Veterans Day, I was serenaded by "White Christmas". 

The little kid I used to be would LOVE how Christmas is front and center far earlier than it used to be, but the grown-up, Mommy-me is drowning in the holiday "to-do's" on top of all the regular "to-do's" that haven't been getting done.  While there has been no time for things like, say, putting away laundry (anyone else leave their clean laundry in baskets for weeks at a time?), now I need to get two preschoolers to look festive and presentable and make them sit while I take pictures for holiday cards.  Then I need to order said holiday cards, label them, stamp them, and send them out in between lesson planning, grading, writing report cards, shopping for presents, and decorating our home.

I've often thought to myself that the difference between being a kid and being an adult is how you look at the snow- when it ceases to be magical and becomes an annoying hindrance, you know you aren't that starry eyed little kid anymore.  Maybe it's that way for Christmas, too.  

Yet.....some of my happiest memories growing up relate to the cozy,loving feeling that Christmas brought. Rolling out cookies with my mom and decorating them with icing, unwrapping the delicate ornaments from the shoeboxes where they lived all year long and feeling like I rediscovered a treasured friend. The soft, sparking lights of the tree in the evening. The anticipation of Christmas morning, new pajamas, hot chocolate, togetherness.  

There are little people looking to me for what Christmas is all about, looking to me for memories to be made. I guess the laundry can sit a little longer- I've got halls to deck. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Back on the List #SOL15

My life is made up of lists of things to do.  As a third grade teacher. the list of "to-do's" feels rather endless and is always growing.  As a wife and mom, there are many "to-do's" that sometimes don't get done because of the teacher list, but still there are the essential things I must do, like fill out picture money forms, lunch menus, appointments, etc.  Laundry, cooking, dishwasher loading and unloading.  Laundry baskets that sit for days (weeks?) until I get around to putting the clothes away. Another "to-do" that is hard to do. 

Please don't get me wrong. I am so grateful to have these "to-do's." I am grateful beyond words for my family, my children, and my job.  It's just...there is no room for me on this list.  For the me that isn't a mom, isn't a teacher, isn't a wife, isn't wearing another hat.  The me that is just me doesn't make it on the list, no time for her. And it's kind of taking its toll. 

Last year, I worked with a nutritionist for a while.  When I told her about my day and my schedule, I sounded a little frantic. I think she was a bit worried about my sanity. She suggested it would be very hard to make healthier food choices when I felt so deprived.  She suggested carving out time each day for myself, even if that meant sitting in my car and reading a magazine for 10 minutes before leaving work. I couldn't do it. 

And I still can't bring myself to "diet."  After a lifetime of low calorie Alba shakes, the "diet platter" at the diner, comprised of a burger without a bun and a slab of cottage cheese (I get angry just thinking about this), counting points, counting calories, cutting carbs- I just don't have it in me anymore.  Yet.  The other day I was at the park with my children and my son, Alex,  started running up the hill. He saw other kids and wanted to join them.  It was when my 2 year old, Megan, took off up the hill that I had the problem.  I was by myself and Megan was racing up the hill, heading towards the top and all I could picture was her falling down, rolling into the oncoming traffic. I raced as fast as I could up the hill, which wasn't fast enough. I was (am) far too out of shape. Thankfully the kids at the top of the hill stopped her until I could get there, out of breath. I do not have the energy or the stamina to keep up with my children when they run from me, which is sad and frightening too.

This park incident forced me to realize that I have ignored myself for some time now, as evidenced by my out-of-shapeness. Last week, I took a step forward in the quest to put myself back on the list. Knowing I need to embark on some type of exercise to shake up my sedentary ways and work towards more balance, I considered different options.  The one I decided on was Jazzercise. Before I was married, I was a regular Jazzerciser and I loved it. Loved the music, the dances, the pace, the time for me. When I thought of what would make me happy, it was Jazzercise.  So I enrolled and found myself kicking up my legs to Kenny Loggins "Footloose" on Sunday morning.  I know this sounds pretty dorky and silly, but it really felt good. 

And so, maybe instead of seeing myself as deprived, I will work towards thinking of all the nourishing, healthy, refreshing foods I can eat that will make me feel the best I can feel.  And maybe taking some time to Jazzercise will bring me back a little, the me that isn't a teacher or a mom or a wife or a daughter. I think she and I have some catching up to do, and it's time to add that "to-do" to the list. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

#SOL15 The Dance

"When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. 
It's to enjoy each step along the way."
-Wayne Dyer

In the winter of 2009, my husband Mike, before he was my husband, agreed to take ballroom dancing lessons with me in preparation for our April wedding.  Once a week, we would drive 20 minutes from our apartment to the ballroom dance studio.  Dennis was our instructor.  He was dapper, always dressed impeccably, and he was patient! Very patient.  Our wedding song would be Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" and Dennis choreographed a dance routine for us, teaching us the steps and adding more each week. 

Wedding planning can be pretty stressful stuff, but the weekly dance lessons were actually a fun escape.  We laughed and named the steps, including one called "Toss the Lady." We practiced during the week in the living room of our apartment, working together to master the first dance we would perform at our wedding reception. 

These days, there aren't many opportunities to dance.  With a 5 year old son and a 2 1/2 year old daughter, full-time jobs, household responsibilities, and more, life is far busier and more complicated than it was on those winter nights when it was just the two of us, learning the steps of a new dance. These days, flopping on the couch after an exhausting day is as much as can be mustered on most nights.  And yet, the memories of those dance lesson days bring back another time in our lives, before we were Mommy and Daddy, when we were a couple at the beginning of a life together. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Recovering from a Gold Star Addiction #SOL15

"But it's alright now.
 I learned my lesson well.  
See you can't please everyone, 
so you got to please yourself."
-Ricky Nelson, "Garden Party"

My class has been reading Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  On Friday, we watched the video Lynda created where she read aloud Chapter 17 and then answered questions about the book and her process.  At one point, Lynda spoke about praise and how we all want it, but we have to be careful not to rely too much on it.  To stop looking for validation outside ourselves and find it within. 

Gretchen Rubin described her need for "gold stars" in The Happiness Project.  I'm a gold-star-loving-gal myself.  Nothing makes me happier than the warm, fuzzy, kind, encouraging words about something I've done right.  I've saved notes and letters from former teachers and now former administrators, parents, and students.  On the hard days, these words help fill up my deflated sails and allow me to journey on through the murky, troubled waters of mistakes, regrets, and complaints about things I've done or failed to do. 

But for the last year, I feel like I've been reawakening- transforming as a teacher. By admitting there are things I don't know and actively seeking communities of professionals to learn and grow, I've become more sure of what I DO know, more confident in my beliefs, more grounded in why I teach and the approach I take. I worry far less about test scores and my evaluation and I think more about the life lessons my students are learning along with their reading, writing, math, science and social studies.  I'm teaching from my heart.  And it feels so much more right than following a script or a pacing chart. 

I was observed today teaching a reading lesson.  For the last several years, I have struggled to show my best teaching self during an observation lesson.  At the end of the observation, I've always felt regretful of things I should have done differently. There were lessons that I knew, flat out, went horribly wrong. It always felt like I was trying to please someone, and the way I taught the lesson was how I imagined someone wanted me to do it. Like I was pretending. It never felt authentic. Today marked a change.  I felt really comfortable in my own skin, really believed in the lesson I was teaching.  I loved the conversation about books and genres and setting goals to grow as a reader.  I was able to do a small group lesson while the students read and then a one on one conference with a student before we came back to share as a group.  At the end of the observation, there was a sense of peace and satisfaction that frankly surprised me! 

I'm not sure where I will fall on the Danielson rubric.  I'm not sure if there will be gold stars for me. But what I know for sure is I'll be all right either way because in my heart, what I taught was grounded firmly in my beliefs.  Esme Raji Codell wrote so beautifully about this in Educating Esme: Diary of a First Year Teacher.  She wrote, "I am operating from a position where I am personally vested in my approach, which any teacher will tell you is a privileged place to be.  Does being personally vested make a teacher successful? Not necessarily. Does it make a teacher accountable? Absolutely. Education's best-kept secret." 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

#WhyIWrite #SOL15

The night my beloved grandfather, Grandy, passed away, I slept on his couch in the den, alongside my mother.  My Grandma snored loudly next to his hospital bed in their bedroom, a bit of comic relief at such a tragic moment.  The hospice workers had told us he was "on his journey" and we knew he would not be with us much longer.  In the middle of the night, or early in the morning, Grandy breathed his last, my mother next to him, having had a sense he was going. When he was carried out by the undertakers, they advised us not to watch, and so my Grandy left what he proudly called his "little nest" for the very last time.

I was 20 years old, a college student.  As I drove back home that morning, my head and heart filled with the words I knew I needed to say about my grandfather.  I walked in the door, sat at the computer, and typed.  I wrote his eulogy, hours after he passed away, and somehow later found the courage to stand up in the church and speak, through the tears, about a man who shaped my life and whom I loved so dearly.

I've turned to writing many times in my life.  The wedding toast for my sister was drafted and revised months before her beautiful day.  The poem I wrote for my son as I waited for him to be born was framed and featured at my baby shower. The letter I wrote to my mother on her 65th birthday to let her know how much she has meant to me was featured in a scrapbook of pictures and letters from others, too, so she can see how much she is loved.  The book I made for my husband when we were dating, an A to Z of our memories together, still sits on our shelf, a reminder of people we were before we were parents.

Why do I write? Why do I care so much about writing and want my students to care too? 

I write to share stories and connections.  I write to honor the people in my life whom I've loved and admired. Writing is a small gift I can give back for all they've given me.  I write to make sense of the incomprehensible, to find meaning at times when things feel hopeless. I write to be seen and heard, to share my ideas with a greater community.  I write at times of joy, sorrow, confusion.  I write to remember and maybe be remembered. 

Writing is an act of courage.  No one can give you the words- they must come from inside of yourself.  Writing reveals your thoughts, your heart, your passions, your fears.  It breaks down the walls between people.  When you write, you invited others to step inside your shoes for a while and see the world from your perspective.  You show them your heart.  You can't hide when you write.

And so I write, to be free, to be honest, to connect, to dream, to imagine, to create, to suppose, to remember, to honor, to give, to make sense.  

Happy National Day of Writing to all the brave writers I know.


Monday, October 12, 2015

The Thing About Corn Mazes #SOL15

I found myself in a corn maze on Sunday.  We went pumpkin picking to a farm out east on Long Island and after the pumpkins were picked, my kids and their cousins wanted to do the corn maze. Never a big fan, but not wanting to be the party pooper, I agreed and we ventured inside.

As the autumn sun warmed the morning chill in the air, my 2 1/2 year old daughter decided I needed to hold her as I navigated the ropey vines and stones in my path.  The path twisted and turned and corn was all I could see as I trudged with Megan through the maze. My son, nieces, and sister-in-law were up ahead, and my niece would wait until I got closer before moving on so we didn't get separated. Holding Megan, it was hard to keep up with the group. When my niece joyfully announced she could see the light at the end of the maze, I was filled with relief. 

Life, of late, has been a lot like a corn maze.  I've found myself in the middle of a confusing and upsetting situation with no clear path out.  It feels scary and I feel lost.  Worried. Anxious. Uncertain what direction will be the right one. Stuck.

But here's the thing about corn mazes: There is always a way out. There is light at the end if you keep walking through.  Wrong turns will happen but you just get back on the path and try another direction.  There are people walking ahead of you.  People who've made it through the corn maze and their stories of surviving it will strengthen you as you figure your own way out.  I am so grateful to the people who have helped me see that the maze can be navigated, the ones supporting me as I struggle to find the way. 

Sometimes, even when you really don't want to go through the corn maze, life plucks you inside one.  I'm in one now but I won't be forever. There's light and I will keep walking until I find the way out.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Fish in a Tree Moment #sol15

Today, my third graders and I began the Global Read Aloud.  This year, we are reading Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  We talked about the saying from Einstein that inspired the title and then I asked the students to think about a time where they felt like a fish in a tree- a fish in a tree moment.  

To me, a fish in a tree moment would be when you felt incapable of doing something that others around you easily could do.  I've had many of these moments throughout my life.  My mind flashed back to being about 8 years old myself and taking gymnastics.  It was torture.  In my memory, the balance beam was very high and very narrow.  Not only did I have difficulty mastering how to walk on that, but I was expected to do a tumble on it.  I was petrified.  To make matters worse, I remember that the kids in my class were mean to me, teasing me about being so inept. I remember quitting gymnastics and the wave of relief I felt.  

Kids who feel like a fish in a tree academically do not have the same luxury- they can't quit school (at least not in the 3rd grade).  How awful to feel the way I felt at gymnastics day in and day out.  Thinking about this memory made me feel more empathy towards Ally and all the Ally's we teach each day.

Some of my students were reluctant to identify their own fish in a tree moments. Interestingly, my students who have academic difficulties could not come up with a fish in a tree moment.  A few students were brave to share their thinking. I started a Padlet to share the fish in a tree moments and tweeted it, inviting others to share too.  My New York students were amazed and excited to see students from Louisiana sharing their fish in a tree moments on the Padlet.  

Do you have a fish in a tree moment to share? Feel free to add it to our Padlet and invite your students to make a connection with Ally.  All of us struggle with something at some time.  I find such comfort in knowing that others have walked the path before me and made it through their challenges.  We can shine a light for those following behind us, letting them know that fish in a tree moments really do pass and don't need to define you. 


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Choosing Kind #SOL15

"Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.  There have been so many stories about the lack of courtesy, the impatience of today's world, road rage and even restaurant rage.  Sometimes, all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person.  Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone.  One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many."
-Mr. Rogers

I've been overwhelmed with sadness at many of the stories I've been reading on Facebook.  Humans of New York has been featuring stories of the refugees in Syria and they are absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking.  I can't even fathom what other human beings are experiencing.  I read updates from Ana Marquez-Greene's family and am just astounded by their grace and courage, but their loss is so stunning in its' sadness that I am filled with despair that they were robbed of their precious girl.  I sobbed as I read how they bought 4 pumpkins and Ana's older brother couldn't stop the tears at how much he  misses his sister, not there to decorate her pumpkin with her family. So much sadness and horror, happening to people just like me, just like all of us.

I'm a girl who needs there to be a happy ending at the end of the book.  Sadness can't be the end of the story.  So I keep looking for stories of kindness as an antidote to the evil that scares me and breaks my heart.  I found one in the above story of an elderly man who needed help eating his breakfast and the kind-hearted cashier who took time to quietly help a man he didn't know.  I am recommitted to sharing stories of kindness to my class, to not just giving lip service to district initiatives to #choosekind and TEACH character education- to REALLY do it, to really live it, because our world REALLY needs more Kenny's.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Imposter #SOL15

This week, I read Sandy Otto's blog post on sharing our failures. It was an excellent piece- check it out: http://ottogoingagainstthegrain.blogspot.com/2015/09/owning-my-teacher-failures.html  Sandy wrote that we often share all of the good on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, but we don't share the flops, the failures, the lessons that went awry.  She courageously discussed what went wrong in her classroom that week and then what went right, too.  Thank you, Sandy, for starting this conversation!

I happen to be a mentor to a new colleague at work.  She just joined Twitter and after seeing my "followers" commented that I'm "famous." Now the pressure is on! We have to observe each other as part of our mentor program and I am already petrified that she will think I am the biggest fraud.  ("People follow HER? IF only they could see her in action!) 

I'm worried that since I started blogging about teaching and sharing my ideas, people might think that I consider myself some type of expert.  I really don't.  I am a teacher with a lot of questions about ways to improve my craft.  There are times where it all goes wrong.  I like to share my ideas but it doesn't always mean they are easy to implement or go the way I think they will in my imagination.  Teaching is a very human job with actual, real live unpredictable children in front of you.  Lesson to lesson may vary in its' effectiveness on any given day.  

So, here's a confession: I think I have Imposter Syndrome. I feel like people will eventually discover that I really am not as good as I sound in the posts I write.  The truth- The Parent's Guide to Writing Workshop that I created for a #TWTblog post? I ran out of time to share it at my own Open School Night. The territory maps I couldn't wait to try with my third graders? I shelved it for now because I wanted to give them more writing time.  I'm thinking of trying it when their ideas for topics starts to wane, but I feel guilty that I didn't do what I said, publicly, I would do.  

I found this article on Imposter Syndrome: http://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/04/03/impostor-syndrome/.  There is a line that says, "But giving your best is not the same as being the best." I like that.  I really do give my best but I know I am not the best. I know there is still a lot for me to learn and figure out.  It's to my credit that I care to find the solutions- I read tweets and blogs, I participate in book clubs and online discussion communities, I share ideas with friends via Voxer, and I write about my own experiences here and at Two Writing Teachers.  I want to be an excellent teacher.  But if I make it seem like I already am one by my posts, please forgive me.  I am thoroughly a work in progress. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Letter to Alex's Teacher #SOL15

To Alex's Teacher,

As a teacher myself, I know what it's like to get a class list, scan the names, and have a moment of recognition, and okay-dread, when you see a name that you've heard before.  Some students have a reputation that precedes them and like it or not, you already have some negative ideas about this student.  You might ask yourself: Will I be able to handle this student's behavior? How much extra stress will this student cause? Can I be the one to turn it around for him/her?

By now, you know my son Alex has been added to your class roster.  He will join your class tomorrow.  He has been in your school since he was 11 months old and next month he will turn 5.  Most of the time, he does a great job.  Sometimes he has trouble listening.  Those times have been more frequent lately, part of the reason he is making a change and joining your group.  

I'm worried you might be dreading this.  You surely have a lovely class and you've started setting up your routines and procedures.  New students need to be oriented to all of this and it is extra work and effort.  Another name tag in a cubby, another birthday cake on the wall, more items to be labeled with another name, another student to keep track of and assess.  I get it. But...

He is my world.  

Along with his dad and his sister, he is my family, the "dream that I'd been chasing" (love that line from Martina McBride's "I Just Call You Mine- always makes me think of Alex).  He is the baby I wished for and had trouble conceiving, his arrival making me what I always hoped I'd be and feared I wouldn't become- a mom.  He is imaginative and loves to create stories and scenarios for the little figures he has- Batman, cars, dinosaurs- always end up in some battle to defeat the "bad guys." He is energetic, curious, chatty, and sweet.  He has moody moments and gets frustrated when something is challenging.  He can be uncooperative at times.  He's a little boy who is learning his way in the world and there are hiccups.  

He is very verbal but needs help to learn his letters.  He has stories to tell but needs help learning to hold his pencil.  He needs you to believe in him, to make him believe he can learn, that it's okay to work at something and get better at it.  That not everything comes easy and sometimes, most of the time, it takes real effort to improve and grow.  He needs you to make school fun, exciting, engaging and to help him connect learning with happy feelings.  He needs you to help him get past those frustrated moments, those defiant times, to help him get back to the group and be accepted and welcomed.  

As for me, I need you to like him.  I want to believe you really get him and appreciate him.  I hope you will love the way he tells a story with such earnestness and innocence.  I hope you will harness his energy and see his excitement as a positive attribute.  I hope you will recognize his kind heart and the way he cares about other people.  I hope you will plan the day with effort and care and knowledge about young children; I hope you will keep him busy in meaningful, appropriate tasks that engage his senses; I hope you will know that his days with you will have a big impact on his days at home.  

Tomorrow, my little boy joins your class.  Today, at his Tae Kwon Do class, he was focused and hard-working. He gave me smiles and kept putting his little thumb up to show me he was trying.  It kind of broke my heart.  He is trying. We are trying. There is room for improvement all around.  It is all a work in progress and now you become part of our story, part of the picture being created known as Alex.  

Knowing the hopes I am pinning on you humbles me as a teacher myself and makes me realize that I need to work harder and be kinder to the students who are known commodities, who live up to their reputations for not following rules and causing disruption.  They too, are somebody's world.  They too, have families that are trying hard and I am part of their child's life story now as well.  What a responsibility and what a gift.  

I thank you in advance for all you will do to help my son have happy days full of learning and growing.  I thank you for your patience, for your kindness, for using a gentle tone when you want to use a sharp one, for understanding that little boys aren't perfect.  I thank you for reading stories, singing songs, designing experiments, and making learning come to life.  I know your job is really very hard but I also want you to know that it is really important. 

Hoping for a great year,
Kathleen Sokolowski

(Waterlogue of Alex at the beach this summer)

Monday, September 7, 2015

To Every Season, Turn, Turn #SOL15

        Click on the link for my summer family photo montage! Summer Memories

"To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose
under heaven."

And so another summer ends, unofficially with Labor Day and the start of school.  It feels like just the other day I was posting about hellos and goodbyes as the school year was ending and I was joining the team at Two Writing Teachers. Now, summer is gone and a new school year beckons.  

I will miss the easy pace of summer, the smell of coconut suntan lotion and the salty spray of the ocean on my lips. The barbecues and ketchup and hamburger smell filling the neighborhoods. The alarm clock-less days, flip flops, and leisurely time with my family.  

I will not miss the mosquitoes.  

Autumn is my favorite season.  Tonight I dream of pumpkins, a chill in the air, red, gold, and brown leaves drifting to the ground. Hayrides. Candy apples. Hoodies and soft sweaters.  Pumpkin flavored everything, especially lattes! Scarecrows and corn mazes. Decorations in windows again. The cozy, happy special family days: birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving.  I dream of classrooms humming with routines well-practiced, the get-to-know you first days of September a memory.  

Every season has its' story, its' purpose. I celebrate the end of a delicious summer and eagerly anticipate the promise of a glorious autumn. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

I Wish Us More #SOL15

Last year, many of us chose I Wish You More, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld as a final read aloud, sending our students off with beautiful wishes for their lives. This summer, I was a participant in the Summer Literacy Institute in Merrick, NY. On our last day, the teachers in the group all composed wishes for our students and we created a poem for our hopes for the new year.

Tomorrow is my first day of school and the students start on Wednesday. As I think about the year ahead and the challenges we teachers will face, I thought it would be nice to start the year with my own adapted version of I Wish You More. This one is for the teachers....

I Wish Us More

I wish us more "get up and go" than can't get out of bed.

I wish us more high fives than hurdles.

I wish us more empowerment than compliance.

I wish us more line-free times at the copy machine than long waits.

I wish us more balance than burnout.

I wish us more taking risks than playing it safe.

I wish us more hope than heartache.

I wish us more celebrations than consequences.

I wish us more lifting each other up than cutting each other down.

I wish us more open doors than brick walls.

I wish us more gratitude than gripes.

Thinking of one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, I wish us more...

Smarts to know what is best for our students,
Heart to put people and relationships first,
Courage to try new things and speak bravely for what is right
A professional home to make us feel welcomed and accepted.

This year, I wish all of us more. Cheers to the clean slate and the possibilities of a new year!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dear First Year Teacher

Thanks to Michelle Haseltine for the inspiration to write this letter!

Dear First Year Teacher,

When I walk into Superintendent's Conference Day this September, it will be my 14th year of teaching.  I was in your shoes in September 2001, just a few days before the world changed forever on September 11th.  I remember my first sixth grader waiting for me outside the door. I said, "Hello, I'm Kathleen" and saw her face fall with confusion before I realized my mistake and said, "Oh, I mean Miss Neagle (my maiden name)." The other students hadn't even gotten to the door and I made my first mistake. It was the first of many.  

When you are a new teacher, you are struggling mightily to stay afloat in the rough, stormy seas of education.  My friends, it was not smooth sailing for me at all, but I felt like I had to pretend it was.  I believed I needed to wear the mask of the seasoned captain in clear control, utterly calm and sure of each adjustment of the wheel.  The truth was, I was drowning.  

I was one of the first people in the building each day, a good hour and a half before students came. I stayed several hours after students left and would do more work at home.  I worked all weekend long. The more I worked, the more behind I felt.  I could never catch up.  I had no balance.  After a lifetime of wanting to be a teacher, volunteering to teach religious education, working as a teacher's aide, student teaching, and my education degree, I was still unprepared for what I experienced.  All I had ever wanted to be was a teacher and after the first year of teaching, I thought I must have gotten it all wrong.  I didn't know if I could continue on.

I'm sorry to paint a bleak picture.  I hope this will not be your experience.  But, if you have those days where you are starting to feel like the water is rising and you can't keep your head above it, know that you are not alone.  Know that beginnings are always hard and there is just so much to learn.  Be patient and understanding with yourself.  We have all been there, even if some of us forget it or pretend we were always master teachers.  I'm telling you I certainly wasn't.

Here is my best advice:

1-Find other teachers who are passionate and excited about teaching and want to keep learning.  When I was a new teacher in 2001, Twitter certainly wasn't an option so I found like-minded friends at the Long Island Writing Project, to which I still belong and find inspiration. Nowadays, Twitter is a great place to go to find teachers who love teaching and sharing ideas.  The friends I made through Twitter are now my Voxer buddies too and we are constantly asking each other questions, talking through ideas, and sharing best practices.  This has totally re-energized my teaching life and I highly recommend you find a professional learning network (PLN) of your own.

2-Keep relationships at the core of all you do.  Maya Angelou said, "People will forget what you say, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Be friendly to everyone. Smile.  Get to know the people in your building- administrators, secretaries, nurses, custodians, security guard, other teachers.  Reach out to parents and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Make an effort to talk to each student each day and let them know you care about them.  This is what will make an impact, more than any brilliant lesson or perfectly designed classroom.

3-Be kind to yourself.  Hydrate. Breathe.  Find balance.  Realize it will never all be done, ever, so prioritize. Work hard but know when to call it a day. The work will truly always be there. 

4-Laugh with your students.  Let them see you are a real person who makes mistakes and has struggles.  Be kind always and walk the walk of what you are expecting them to do.  Let them see you be moved by literature and words.  Be genuinely enthusiastic about what you are teaching. 

5- Don't doubt your instincts.  You will be handed things to teach and given programs and you'll be trained in one thing, only to have it replaced the next year with a different system.  Know what you believe about learning and keep reading and growing in your professional knowledge.  Believe that you know your students and have faith in your ability to know what will work for them and what won't. 

One of my favorite books was Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell.  I highly recommend it! I also recommend The World According to Mister Rogers- Important Things to Remember from the unforgettable Fred Rogers.  You really can't go wrong if you stay true to what Mister Rogers teaches and Esme will make you laugh as you face your own joys and challenges in this year, which you will never, ever forget. 

Welcome to the club! Like Kid President says, "Be awesome!"

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Inspiration from #cyberPD