Tuesday, March 31, 2015

I Believe #sol15 Day 31

I began the Slice of Life Challenge a month ago with a poem, "Where I'm From."  This has been a transformative month in so many ways and I wanted to end with things I've come to believe.  I've been reading Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming and I know she has a part near the end where says what she believes.  I remembered the song I sang in elementary school chorus, "I Believe" and listened to it for inspiration before composing my poem.  You can hear the song in the link below.  

Thank you so much for this chance to write, share, read, and connect with a community that I've come to love.  I've appreciated the comments and kindness so very much and look forward to slicing with you on Tuesdays.  Without further ado, I Believe... 

I believe in books.
I believe in picture books and chapter books
Books of facts and books of quotes.
I believe in the power of a book
to make us laugh, cry, question, wonder.
I believe books will take us to magical places 
far away, inside ourselves.

I believe in libraries.
 Halls of endless books and knowledge
Open to anyone who comes to seek it.
Shelves and stacks
Wonder and possibility
available for all.

I believe in play.
I believe in pretending and imagining,
creating, building, 
cooking up plastic food 
coloring yellow suns with smiley faces.
Making mud pies in the dirt
Digging sand castles on the beach.

I believe in the helpers,
the ones Mr. Rogers talked about,
the ones who are always present 
in times of terror and despair.
I believe love wins,
even when it seems impossible
 to believe.

I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. 
was right when he said
"Intelligence plus character-
that is the goal
of true education."
I believe your character 
is who you are
when no else is watching.

I believe we all have gifts
and they aren't identical
aren't standardized
aren't common.
I believe in music and art
movement and dance
laughter and joy
I believe in making choices
 and taking chances.

I believe in writing.
I believe in picking up your pen
or firing up your iPad
and putting words to thoughts
memories on the page.
I believe writing 
helps you find yourself
and make sense of your world
know where you fit in
and where you never will.

I believe 
on the darkest days 
 absent of joy and laughter
chances and choice,
because you're a writer
you know who you've been,
you know who you are,
and you know 
no one, not any one 
can ever take away
what you believe. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

News in New York #sol15 Day 30

News this morning in New York 
Budget deals emerge
"Governor Cuomo
wreaking vengeance"
Diane Ravitch writes. 
Elected officials
making decisions
not qualified to make.
Tests to decide
the effective teacher
and the ineffective one.
Heart sinks.

What else can I do?
I'm a teacher.
I was born to teach.
It's all I've hoped to be.
If I am found ineffective
due to independent evaluators
who don't know me
don't know my heart
my experience
my work ethic
my continual search
to be better
where will I go?

If test scores
are the focus
and my job is
on the line,
is it a job
I really want 
to do anymore?
When my family
depends on me,
will I need
to play the game?
To get my paycheck?
To pay our mortgage?

How will I face
the young faces
in front of me
who are more 
than any test 
will ever say?

Sadness today 
in New York
Our letters
our phone calls
our pleas
 in the end
didn't matter.
Money wins

I take down 
my charts
their name tags
anything that 
could be helpful
on "the test."
Weeks lost
to make Pearson
and tell me nothing
I don't already know.
Weeks lost
to prove accountability 
to elected officials
who never seem
to be accountable
to anyone. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Possibilities Everywhere! #sol15 Day 29

A funny thing has happened during this month of slicing.  The more I've written, the more memories have floated up, connecting to current issues in my life. Where before ideas would cross my mind and leave as quickly as they came, now they are sticking and percolating in my  mind, and taking new shape and meaning.  I think this is yet another gift that the Slice of Life Challenge has given me.  

On a walk to the playground with my children today, I remembered a spring day 25 years ago when I took freedom a step too far and rode my bike further than I was allowed to go.  Venturing to a nearby park with two friends, we rode our bikes up and down the hills, exhilarated.  Until my final ride down the hill when I lost control of my bike and crashed, in the days before anyone wore helmets, laying flat on the ground, stunned.  People nearby saw me laying there, un-moving, and called 911. Several fire trucks and ambulances descended on the park for...me.  And I was really fine, just completely embarrassed.  My mother just so happened to be walking in the park, not realizing I was there.  She saw all the commotion and then saw my friend Amy, waving to her, saying, "Don't worry, Mrs. Neagle, she's fine!"  I can only imagine my mother's panic now that I am a mother myself.  

I thought about this story at the playground today, with my children, as my son took daring leaps off the slide.  I considered writing a poem about my bike riding misadventure but poetry doesn't come as easily. As we walked home, I thought about another story I could write.  At my mom's house today, I noticed she had put out an Easter decoration I made when I was a "Squirette."  The Squirettes were kind of like a youth group for girls but it was an interesting group and definitely slice-worthy down the line.  

The stories and memories and connections keep coming.  Writing every day for almost 30 days now is something I've never done but has changed me for the better.  I think it is something worth sharing with students, the idea that the more you write, the more you want to write, and the more the writing helps you make sense of yourself.  Another gift.  New insight into who I am, who I was and who I still hope to be.  

This notion of ideas being everywhere calls to mind one of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, "Valentine for Ernest Mann":

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries 
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.
Slicing has let me live my life in the way Nye suggests, more awake and more present, seeing possibilities everywhere. The more I've written, the more I've had to say.  And it really feels like I'm just getting started... 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Joy and Inspiration Times Two! #sol15 Day 28

Tonight's challenge: Synthesize the experiences/learning from my Friday night Barry Manilow concert (yes, I am a proud "Fan-i-low") and my Saturday workshop at CELI (Connected Educators of Long Island).  Here goes: 

There is something so joyful about being in a large arena and singing along to a song where everyone knows the words.  The song was created by one person and had specific meaning when created, but then it is released into the world. The song becomes known and each person who sings it calls up different mental images and a slightly new interpretation of the story told in the song.  The song is unique for all of us but shared by all of us as we sing together, strangers who know the same words.  It's nice to sing the song by yourself but there is an energy that comes from singing it together.  

Teaching traditionally has been a pretty solitary endeavor.  It is you, alone, in the classroom with the students.  Yet, for some time now, teachers have been seeking out ways to connect, share, question, and learn about each other's practices and what works.  Today, I participated in Dr. Bill Brennan's vision- CELI, Connected Educators of Long Island here in Farmingdale.  It was a chance for educators who have been connecting online to talk face to face and learn from each other.  And just like last night, when I felt joy and energy singing along with a crowd, today I experienced joy and energy being surrounded by educators who love teaching, learning, books, and innovative ways to get their students engaged and passionate about the world.  

Each of us who attended CELI will walk away with shared strategies, texts, apps, and professional development ideas but what we do with what we learned will look different.  My friend and colleague, another Kathleen, attended the same sessions I did, but I know that we will both apply what we learned in the way that works for us and our students and it won't look identical.  Just like the songs we sing together still call up different images in our minds, the ideas we were exposed to today will take root uniquely and will bloom based on our separate passions, interests, strengths, and experiences.  In sharing what we come up with, we will form new ideas and strategies, too, thus creating a ripple effect of learning that doesn't end.  

Learning is both solitary and social.  Like listening to a song and making up your own images and story about the words you hear, learning happens in your mind when you come across new concepts, facts, ideas.  That is the solitary party. Sharing what you know and listening to what others know and then knowing more and then sharing more- that is the social part of learning.  Just like singing a beloved song with thousands of other people can be joyful and make you feel part of a community, learning with others can inspire you to see the possibilities you didn't even imagine before you came to learn.  

Joy and inspiration and it's only Saturday.  Not bad for a weekend.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Ready to Take a Chance Again! #sol15 Day 27

Yay for Friday! It's been a rough week and this is the slice I've been struggling to get in to keep my perfect record of slicing each day.  This week involved a class field trip, finishing report cards, my Grandma's 89th birthday and getting things ready for her party, my daughter's doctor's check-up, and... I think I broke my toe playing with son last night. But it's FRIDAY and I am having a night out with my mother and my sister.  We are going to dinner and then....to the BARRY MANILOW concert! We are "Fan-i-lows" and know his songs by heart.  I am looking forward to relaxing, laughing, chatting, singing and maybe dancing on my toes that are unbroken.  

Growing up, my dad was only man in the house and he would call it "sorority hour" when he would come up to his room to find my mom, my sister and me watching a movie together or a show.  My mom introduced us to all the classic movies and musicals were our favorite- "The Sound of Music", "Thoroughly Modern Millie", "Bye Bye Birdie", "The Wizard of Oz", "Annie", Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella."  A couple of summers ago, my sister and I treated our mom to brunch and the Broadway version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.  It was such a fun, memorable day out.  

Those days are far and few between now because we are so BUSY.  When we're together, which is often, the kids are there and we are usually tending to them and don't get much time to really talk and catch up.  I'm so excited to get that chance tonight to be together, revisiting "sorority hour" and singing along to a fantastic entertainer.  Have a great Friday night, my fellow slicers! 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nature's Classroom #sol15 Day 26

Tomorrow my third grade class is taking a field trip to a local Mexican restaurant as a culminating activity to our study of Mexico.  This got me thinking back to my own experience with field trips and one in particular that stands out in my memory, twenty five years later.  

"Nature's Classroom" was the field trip that made you so excited about becoming a sixth grader at St. William the Abbot.  It was a rite of passage. Every year, the sixth grade classes and their teachers went to Nature's Classroom in Connecticut (we are in Long Island, NY) from Monday to Friday.  It was a sleep-away from home trip where you would spend the week engaged in hands-on learning activities involving the natural environment.  You would sleep in bunk beds in girls only or boys only cabins, depending on who you were.  We were split into different groups and had a counselor who was in charge.  Our meals were all in a mess hall and I still remember "the ort report."  Ort was apparently waste and they would measure how much food you wasted.  As a group, we were always aiming to have less waste.

I remember "Walk Don't Run Hill" which was a steep hill leading to our cabins, where you were supposed to...um, walk not run.  I remember the nightly sing-alongs when we would all gather in the mess hall and one of the counselors would play his guitar and we would sing songs like "Moon Shadow" and "The Rose".  Those sing-alongs remain one of my favorite memories of this memorable trip.  There was such a feeling of peace and community in those hopeful songs.

  I remember the invention convention, when we had to present a new invention we made.  I remember the night-time walk through the forest and the counselors pointing out how bright the stars were.  They said that the stars were always that bright but the lights in our neighborhoods made them seem dimmer.  At Nature's Classroom, with not much around, the stars were brilliant. I remember that winter green lifesavers were supposed to spark in the dark.  I remember trust activities where we were supposed to fall backwards off a ping-pong table (could that be right?) and have our classmates catch us.  

I also remember being terribly home-sick.  Not one to venture far without my family, when postcards and letters arrived for us, I still remember my mom's "Happy Gram" which had a huge yellow smiley face on it.  It made me weep.  It reminded me so much of my mom and home and although I was having the time of my life, I also missed the safety and security of home.  

There are so many things about my K-12 education that are fuzzy now.  So many things I've forgotten, but the things I remember clearly tell me something about memory and learning.  25 years later, I remember my counselor's name was Jen, the "ort report", "Walk Don't Run Hill",  the cabin and the bunk beds.  I remember the songs and the feelings.  It was a trip full of experiences and emotions and THAT is what makes someone remember.  When we can give students experiences of DOING- creating, singing, playing, exploring and we can make them FEEL some emotion- hopefully positive....well, then we will be creating the lessons that they will never forget, too.  

I don't know if St. William's still takes sixth graders to Nature's Classroom.  Looking back on it now, I can't believe my teachers gave up a week of time with their own families to do that- a week without any real privacy or alone time.  How generous of them to do that for us! I hope they realize that the experience is one I think of often and has influenced me greatly.  "The Rose" became one of my favorite songs, a lullaby I sang to both my children and a song that I call on when I need to remember that in the cold, barren despair of winter, a seed waits to become a glorious flower. Those sing-alongs from twenty five years ago are still part of my heart.  

We don't think much about hearts anymore when it comes to school.  We hear data, rigor, accountability, evaluation, benchmarks, modules, progress monitoring.  But I don't remember any test like I remember Nature's Classroom.  No module inspired the lullabies I sang to my children.  So maybe, just maybe...no- certainly, they have it ALL wrong.  Education is all about heart. 

Accountability and my Grandma #sol15 Day 25

"It takes a village to raise a child." 

Who has made you who you are?  The current political scene is in favor of tying "accountability" of a child's learning to test scores and then to the classroom teacher, who is supposedly solely responsible for how that child fared on the all important exam. In reality, many have a role in shaping a child's life and that child's ability to learn and no test can tell you the whole story about a child, can't tell you about the child's heart or their passion, their character or their talents.  Yet this one measure can lead a child to feel like a failure, make or break teaching careers, can lead to school closings, can somehow deign a teacher worthy of "merit" pay and big bonuses.  Can any one adult really claim to be responsible for one child's success or struggle?

Why isn't the village accountable? What about all the adults, from the very beginning, who have a stake in a child?  Did the mom go to her prenatal doctor appointments and was there a partner to remind her to take her vitamins? Were alcohol and other drugs avoided?  Did they sing to the child, talk to the baby, show him/her books from the start? Were there trips to the library, visits to the farm, opportunities to build language at the grocery store? Were there regular well visits and dentist visits and was the child kept healthy? Did the child get an opportunity to go to preschool and learn about the structure of school prior to starting kindergarten? Is there a caring adult who helps the child do his/her homework and makes it a priority?Does an adult read to the child each day? Do the adults in that child's life, separate from the classroom teacher, help that child feel safe, secure, and special? Has our government supported policies and structures that help families spend time together from the start, that allow for mothers and fathers to get paid and take time off to be with their baby? Are quality childcare experiences made available for all citizens and not just the ones who can afford it, leaving the rest to find less stimulating and safe childcare? There are so many factors and influences that go into shaping that little student who comes to the school door, but then all of that is forgotten and doesn't count when "accountability" is passed down.

It would be very difficult for me to assign my growth or development to any one teacher or person.  I've been beyond blessed to have been born into a family that wanted me, prepared for me, loved me, provided for me, gave me access to language and books and set me up for success. There were many adults in my life whose love and influence helped me in  my development.  Today, I want to particularly honor my Grandmother, Eleanor Brigante, who celebrates her 89th birthday on this day. 

One of my favorite pictures is Grandma reading to me, when I was about three.  With barrettes in my curly hair, wearing a very 80's looking corduroy jumper, my eyes are on the book she reads and we sit, side by side.  Beyond reading to me, Grandma used to tell stories to me and my sister, creating characters named "Good Gertie", "Bad Betsy" and "Sweet Sally."  As you might imagine, Bad Betsy was always doing fresh things but Good Gertie made it right in the end along with her sister, Sweet Sally.  These stories were so special to us that, as young children, we both ended up writing and illustrating our own versions. (Wish I kept these!) 

My grandparents were just a couple of towns away and were huge influences on my childhood.  Grandma and Grandy were always there to help when our parents had to work but someone needed to watch us.  On half-days, they would take us to Burger King as a treat or come meet us from the bus.  We always looked forward to sleepovers at the "hotel" as we called it, really Grandma's den with the pull-out couch.  Some of my best memories include my grandparents taking us to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, then coming back to their house and getting cozy in the pull-out bed and watching "Golden Girls" on a Saturday night.

Every school concert, every awards night, every graduation, they were there, with flowers for us and cards and gifts and pride.  When I was in college, my Grandy became sick and spent a summer in the hospital before passing away.  Everyone was working but me so I was able to drive my Grandma each day to the hospital so she could visit with Grandy.  It was a very sad time, but I was glad that I could help her have those visits and give her back some of the kindness she showered me with always.  

After Grandy passed away in 1999, Grandma impressed me with her courage, her grace, and her desire to make the days happy even though it was terribly hard to go on without her best friend.  While Grandy only had the chance to see me just out of my teens, Grandma has known me as an adult- been there as I graduated college, became a teacher, became a wife, became a mother.  In my early days of teaching, when I was single, Grandma and I had a date every Wednesday.  I would come over for dinner and each week she prepared something different and delicious.  My friends at work couldn't wait to hear what she made and see my leftovers at lunch.  We had a lovely routine of eating dinner and then watching cooking shows or game shows or sometimes Seinfeld repeats.  It was a chance to spend some time together each week and it was so nice to be fussed over and made to feel special, even as an adult in my twenties.  

Grandma's stories of raising three small children alone in Tennessee when my grandfather had to travel always remind me how gutsy she was and is.  As a wife and mother, I've appreciated her insights into making your life happy and keeping it all together when you feel like you're losing it a bit.  Grandma is someone I can laugh with, someone whose love for her family shines through everything else.  Her influence on me has been profound, unmeasurable,  and her love for me has been a gift in my life.  

Our lives are all connected and a person's influence on a child's success is quite impossible to measure. Instead of pouring billions into an industry assigned to label us all while holding us "accountable", I wish we could create more opportunities for children to have safe and secure homes and high-quality early experiences that build in them trust, esteem and language.  I wish parents could spend more than 6 weeks with their newborn.  I wish some of those testing billions could be spent getting books into people's homes and promoting resources like the public library.  I wish we were all accountable to each other, not on a test, but in our hearts and minds, knowing our fates are all linked together and we are only as strong as the weakest among us.  I wish everyone had a Grandma like mine, who was another loving, stable presence in my life and has given me years of attention, stories, laughs, love and really delicious pasta.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is it time for the Bottle Fairy to make an appearance? #sol15 Day 24

Desperate times called for desperate measures, so when Alex was two and a half, we called upon the Binky Fairy to make an appearance.  I used to hate seeing pictures of kids with pacifiers plugging up their mouths until my own child became passionately enamored with Binky, or should I say binkies as there were many pastel colored plugs that Alex would suck on for comfort throughout the day.  I recall him pulling it out to say something and then putting it back in, which really let me know Binky's time was coming to an end. My other mommy friends with kids of similar age were horrified that Alex still used a pacifier, but the time never seemed right to do away with them. When Alex was 20 months old, I became pregnant and it seemed like so much in his life was going to change, I didn't have the heart to take away his beloved Binkies.  
When I finally got up the courage to take away the pacifier, I decided to try a strategy that my sister and other moms had used- the Binkie Fairy.  This Fairy's job is to take away the "baby" binkies to give away to the new little babies who need them and in their place, she leaves new big kid toys.  It's a swap.  I collected all the binkies after Alex went to sleep and threw them out, feeling sick with guilt.  The Binkie Fairy left a note thanking Alex for giving away his baby binkies and she left him toy cars.  He liked the cars but wanted those binkies back.  Except they were gone. And he eventually got over it...
Today was Megan's two year old check-up.  Megan blessedly never took to the binkie so that is one battle I don't have to fight.  Our Waterloo will be the "ba-ba."  Megan can speak in full sentences and recite nursery rhymes, knows all her colors including aqua, but she still calls the bottle her "ba-ba" and she does NOT want to give it up.  The doctor said it's time.  She said maybe do a Bottle Fairy to give the bottles to the new little babies.  Tonight, I brought this up to Megan.  Here's how it went:
Me: The doctor said you're a big girl and it's time to give our ba-ba's away to the babies.
Megan: I not a big girl.  I little.  (Hitting me) That makes me very ang-y. (Pouty face). 
Tonight, I just don't have it in me to be the Bottle Fairy. I'm not ready to give up the cuddles as she rests in my arms and drinks her ba-ba and we snuggle.  She is my last baby and it's getting to be that time when there will be no more diapers and no more bottles.  She is growing up and while I love that, I also mourn it. Soon, very soon, the Bottle Fairy will whisk away the beloved bottles and leave a pretty doll or a new package of crayons and a coloring book. Tonight, Megan will rest in my arms and drink her ba-ba and we'll snuggle, as I hold tightly to a babyhood that has gone way too fast. 
Alex and his beloved Binky, pre-Fairy
Megan, drinking her most favorite ba-ba and her fellow ba-ba loving cousin. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Revisiting Wendy and Her Candlesticks #sol15 Day 23

     On Day 17 of the Slice of Life Challenge, I wrote about a Fundations lesson gone awry as I couldn't stop laughing about the dictated sentences.  They were: 
Could James have riding instruction on the saddle?
At the explosion, Wendy dropped the beautiful candlesticks.  

     James and Wendy have become rather legendary in my classroom, and students often weave them into conversations and still laugh about James and his saddle and Wendy and her candlesticks.  I challenged the students to write Wendy's story and they came up with some interesting responses.  Many of them made James part of Wendy's story too.  We just learned acrostic poems, so I decided to try an acrostic story for Wendy. I've never written an acrostic story and don't know if it is even a real thing (ha!) but it was fun to try it out. I included characters from the books I read aloud this year, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and The One and Only Ivan and a reference to our new read aloud, James and the Giant Peach, because I thought the students would enjoy making those connections.  I tried to include some interesting words and phrases that students might not know to boost their vocabulary and open up a conversation about word choice. Here is what I came up with and will share with my students: 

An Acrostic Adventure: WENDY
By Mrs. Sokolowski
Wishing she was sharing the saddle with James, riding off into the sunset instead of slaving away as housekeeper to Lady Abilene, Wendy picked up the heavy antique crystal candlesticks.

Entering the room like a swirling tornado, as was her custom, little Maggie ran in, carrying her beloved china rabbit, Edward Tulane,chattering on about how today was the day she would visit the zoo with her best friend Julia to see the elephants and gorillas.  

Needless to say, as Maggie rushed by, Wendy was worried she would drop the beautiful candlesticks and be fired by Lady Abilene, who loved those candlesticks bequeathed to her by her grandmother, Pellegrina.  Wendy grasped them tightly and breathed a sigh of relief that the exquisite candlesticks were indeed safe.  

Ding Dong.  The doorbell rang and Wendy, still carrying the candlesticks walked to the door.  Before she could gingerly place the candlesticks on the small table near the door in order to see who was waiting on the other side, an explosion shook the house, blasting down the door and pushing Wendy back with great force.  At the explosion, Wendy dropped the beautiful candlesticks.  

You might think Wendy’s story ends tragically, but not so.  When James received the news that Wendy was injured in an explosion, he expertly rode back into town on his saddle (all of that riding instruction really paid off!) and he asked Wendy to marry him.  Abilene was very understanding about the candlesticks breaking in the explosion, which had been unfortunately caused by a mysterious giant peach rolling into a nearby gas station.  Maggie and Edward were unharmed and on another, less explosive day, Maggie joined Julia at the zoo to meet an adorable baby elephant named Ruby and a proud silverback gorilla known as Ivan.  They all lived happily ever after, except of course, the shattered candlesticks.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

On Slicing and Classroom Implications #sol15 Day 22

Write, Share, Give
I am really so grateful to the Two Writing Teachers- Stacy, Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana, and Tara, for creating this Slice of Life Challenge, which is surely a great deal of work and management, but is life-changing for so many of us.  I wanted to reflect a bit on what I've noticed about writing in the last 22 days and what it might mean for my students. 

I first wrote this in narrative form, but then I revised it as a table to better show how my personal connections can lead to classroom implications. 

My noticings about the Slice of Life Challenge
Classroom Implications for my 3rd graders
The freedom to come up with my own topic makes the writing personally meaningful.
It still remains true: students need to self-select their topics the majority of the time for the writing to be meaningful.  Students need help seeing the possibilities for topics in their lives.
Comments from other readers makes it much more motivating to write and share.
I need to give feedback more often and sooner on their writing and provide opportunities for students to comment on each other’s writing.  We use Kidblog for blogging and I need to teach into thoughtfully commenting on another’s piece.
Not every piece resonates with other readers but I have to stay true to my heart. (I can see how many people read each post.  The ones about my kids get way less visits than the ones about teaching.  I’ve actually considered changing topics to get more “hits” on my blog and then stopped myself from being ridiculous. I have to write what matters to me.)
Share this with students! Let them know that sometimes readers will really pick up on something in their reading and love it but there are other times their writing won’t get a lot of praise or interest.  If what they wrote matters to them, then that is okay.  It’s like being a baseball player- not every up at bat will yield a home run but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t swing anyway and enjoy the experience of playing.
I really enjoy being able to integrate pictures, videos, and quotes from other books and places into my writing.
Using a site like Kidblog allows students that opportunity, too.  I’ve found my students go crazy in the picture galleries and waste a lot of time finding funny pictures and not doing the actual writing, so I would have to teach them how a picture or video could add to their writing, not replace it.
The challenge feels do-able because there is an end in sight, otherwise it might feel overwhelming and daunting to have to write and post each day. But now that I am in the daily habit of writing, I know I will continue blogging much more than I would have if I hadn’t participated in this challenge.
I am considering creating a blogging challenge for my third graders for the month of April.  I am hoping they will “catch the writing bug” and want to continue, as I do, when the challenge is over.  While I might not blog every single day, I know I will blog much more often than I did before starting this challenge.  Maybe that will happen for them, too.
Writing every day has made my writing better and connecting with other teachers and writers has made me feel part of a community.
Students need time to write. I wanted to write each day- how do I make them WANT to write each day too and not feel like a chore that they just "phone in" to get it done? How do we find time to share our writing when we don’t have enough time as is? I am thinking I need to utilize writing groups and writing partnerships more often for more immediate feedback, as well as encouraging more writing on Kidblog.  The writing, sharing, and commenting more often would most likely create the feeling of community among my students. 
Reading other “slices” has helped my writing improve and given me more to think about.  It’s made me feel less alone and more connected. Writing slices where I share things I’m struggling with has also made me feel less alone and has been comforting.
Reading and writing are important for intrapersonal and interpersonal development.  We tap into our own ideas, worries, and hopes and when we share that with others or read about others ideas, worries, and hopes we lose that sense of isolation and fear.  Students need to feel safe to be vulnerable in their writing.

Writing in this challenge has led me to personal and professional discoveries and insights, has made me feel part of a special community, and has inspired me to make writing more meaningful for my students. The Slice of Life Challenge has become something I look forward to doing each day.  In many ways, this challenge has renewed my love of writing and my passion for helping students find their voices, too. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Decowations" #sol15 Day 21

Write, Share, Give
     On the first night of spring, as the snowflakes persistently fell, I pulled out our Easter decorations.  From October to April, there is always something to decorate for and anticipate: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter.  From April to September, there is nothing to hang in the window, no turkeys or leprechauns, hearts or bunnies to remind you a holiday is coming. This is it for decorating for a while, but I happen to love my Easter decorations and it is always like visiting a favorite friend I haven't seen in ages when I open up the box where the bunnies and baskets live the rest of the year.  There's the Lenox Easter basket that, in pale shades of pink,blue and green that I registered for as one of my wedding gifts.  There's the Winnie the Pooh I bought when I was pregnant with Alex, months before he would even appear.  There's the Easter egg electric candlesticks my Grandmother gave me one year, one of her QVC purchases, that makes me smile and appreciate how she is always so thoughtful.  And there are the multi-colored pictures of bunnies and eggs to tape up in the window. 

     This year, I asked my 4 year old son  Alex to help me. I asked him because he always gets very excited about "decowations" and at this point in his life, he loves to help me put them up.  He'd been lounging on the couch on the iPad, because it was Friday  night and we were too exhausted to remind him to do something more active. It was easily going on an hour of staring at it, so I asked him to take a break and come stand on our window sill and tape up the Easter pictures.  He loves tape, although it is kind of a struggle for him to effectively rip off a piece.  As we worked to hang the decorations, his a little lopsided and crooked, we talked.  He was confused and thought that the Easter bunny was coming tonight since we were decorating.  He wanted to know who was coming to his house for the party.  I had to explain that it wasn't Easter yet and we might go to other people's houses for Easter celebrations this year.  Alex told me he likes it better when people come to his house because his house " is the coziest" and "I like the snacks at my house."

     As we finished up, I asked him to put Minnie and Mickey in the window.  He said, "They should kiss!" and posed them so they were smooching.  Then he ran off to go back to the iPad.  

As I type this, I realize a reader might think, "So what?" I try to remind my students they need to have a "so what" in their writing- what is the meaning and message behind the story you told? What is it that the reader might relate to, what is the heart of the story? In this story, it's that Alex is 4 now which is a very precious age.  He has some baby features about him, but there is a maturity now too and a level of sophistication to his thought process that wasn't present before.  I know, in a few years, he is not going to hang Easter eggs up in the window with me or be excited about "decowations."  He'll say the word correctly and probably won't care if they are hung or not.  He'll be rushing off to a friend's house or to watch a game.  All the time for myself I am constantly missing at this stage of my life will come rushing back, but I will feel the sting and absence of spending less time with him.  We are always wishing for something else and end up missing the gifts before us. 

Last night, I could have done the piles of laundry, worked on updating my resume, started the new books I've bought, begun the report cards.  I could have done all of this as Alex quietly played on the iPad.  I'm glad I didn't.  I'm glad I chose to put up the decorations that add cheer to my days, remind me of happy times and people I love, and I'm glad I enlisted Alex to help.  In my memory now and forever, I see snowflakes falling on the first night of spring and my four year old son telling me his house is the "coziest" and innocently giving Mickie and Minnie a loving moment.  The "to-do" list is endless, but as another slicer, Clare from Teachers for Teachers  wrote in her slice on Monday "It is the small moments that matter."

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Power of a Teacher's Pen #sol15 Day 20

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Today has been a reminder about the power of words and the necessity to choose them carefully. On a student's paper, a word from me was written that hurt more than it helped, that caused upset, frustration, and sadness for a parent.  I didn't mean that at all. I've worked to build confidence and show encouragement all year, but one quick move of my pen changed the positive feelings and caused hurt.  

As teachers, we make so many decisions each day, each moment.  We try to honor students, challenge them, comfort them, and also push them to do what we know they could do.  Always their best interest is at heart.  Still, to know that I caused pain by a word on the page is so regrettable to me, so opposite from my intentions.  

Amends will be made.  I will speak to the parent and explain and apologize.  I will never, ever write anything on a student's paper anymore that could be interpreted as deflating or mean.  It was a humbling day, a reminder of the heaviness that every word I say and write holds when it comes to children and their efforts to learn.  

I feel embarrassed and sad about the incident.  Informed about it at lunch, the rest of my day was difficult as it weighed on my mind.  I was close to tears until the end of the day when I related the story to caring colleagues and I cried.  My colleagues reminded me what we would say to a child who made a mistake: We would forgive easily, we would say you will do better next time and it's okay because we all do make mistakes.  I hate to make mistakes and most especially hate to make ones that cause others to feel hurt. 

So, all in all, not my best day in the classroom. A lesson learned.  A reminder that my words and actions have immediate consequences and I need to always be thoughtful.  I spent the rest of the day trying to put more positive words into the world to make up for the one that hurt.  I emailed my colleague to thank her for listening to me and making me feel better that afternoon.  I publicly thanked my son's preschool teacher for being so kind and wonderful. I want my words to encourage and spread joy. I want to take back the one that caused pain but words don't work that way. I've always believed, "When you know better, you do better." I know better now.  I'll do better. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What You Measure, You Treasure #sol15 Day 19

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"What you measure, you treasure."

"525,600 minutes.  525,000 moments so dear.  525, 600 minutes.  How do you measure, measure a year?"  -"Seasons of  Love"

183 busy school days.  183 days to teach.  183 precious school days. 183 days- who will you  reach?

With benchmarks, with test scores 
with plots, graphs and data points?
With pretests and post-tests?
With modules in Common Core?

183 busy school days.  183 days to teach.  183 precious school days. 183 days- who will you  reach?

With laughter, with smiles,
With high-fives and apples given?
With passion & effort?
With phone calls and letters written?

183 busy school days.  183 days to teach.  183 precious school days. 183 days- who will you reach?

When APPR first came into existence a few years ago, I kept thinking about "Seasons of Love" from the play Rent.  How DO you measure a year? The song states, "In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter and strife.  525,600 minutes.  How do you measure a year in the life?"  What is measurable and quantifiable when you talk about a year in your life? What is measurable and quantifiable when you think of a teacher in the classroom?

They say, "What you measure, you treasure."  It seems our treasures have become test scores and on demand writing pieces, progress monitoring data points and reading benchmark levels. We enter our data. We make predictions on how much our students will grow and we know that our evaluations ride on our predictions. It is all worked out to some mathematical formula, where all of these pieces of data will come together and spit out a rating about you and your ability to do the job you hold so dear. 

But what if we measured how many times a student who never raised her hand started to raise it because she began to believe in herself? What if we measured the amount of books a reluctant reader checked out of the library because he started to like reading a little bit more? What if there was a way to measure that "Aha! moment" a student has when learning a new math concept which was fuzzy but now is crystal clear? What if we evaluated the positive phone calls a teacher made to tell parents about the good things their child is doing? 

How do you measure how much kinder a heart has become from being part of a classroom community?  Can you plot enthusiasm and joy on a graph? Can you weigh the effort a teacher puts in, add up the hours spent grading and planning and redoing and worrying? Would you count the pieces of tape that go on the backs of the student work that gets hung in the hallway? Could you measure the tears dried, the money lent, the school supplies bought, the words of encouragement spoken? 

It's harder to measure the things that really count about teachers and students and learning.  It's so much easier and neater to have test scores that fit nicely into boxes and lead to clear-cut labels: Highly Effective (the elusive Holy Grail). Effective. Developing. Ineffective. Rank them, sort them, fire them.  

Those of us in the trenches, those of us wiping the tears, teaching our hearts out, putting on the best show we can to keep our students engaged, those of us who work with children who are not products to be sorted and labeled...we know better. We are gardeners, planting seeds.  We are teachers, touching lives.  Our influence, our impact, our worth cannot be measured.  Or if it can, as the song goes, "Measure in love." 

Let the River Run! #sol15 Day 18

"Let the river run. Let all the dreamers wake the nation."
-Carly Simon

     One of my all-time favorite movies is from the late 1980's- "Working Girl".  There are just so many things I love about this movie and looking back at it now, with the views of the Twin Towers and the huge computers and of course, the hair, it really does bring to mind a different time.  Yet many of the "truths" spoken in the movie are timeless. 
      I can relate to Tess, who reads everything (including "W" to the chagrin of the snobby executives) because "you never know where the big ideas will come from."  As a teacher (and dare I call myself a "writer"?), I do read many things each day that contribute to my overall knowledge, beliefs, and ideas.  I read professional books, children's books, blogs, articles, poems.  I love when something I read reminds me of something else I read (we used to call those "text to text connections") and sometimes it reminds me of things I see in the world (those were "text to world connections").  My class just finished The One and Only Ivan right around the time that Ringling Bros decided to stop using elephants in their circus shows. I love when we can show students that the books we are reading really can relate to the "real world" and also might change your perspective on a topic. 
       Confidence.  Katherine, the movie's villain, has tons of it which has really gotten her to her position since she seems to lack ability and creativity.  At one  point in the movie, she says, "Tess, you never get anywhere in this world waiting for things to happen to you.  You make it happen."  She was right. Dreams are important but they come to be when they put on their work boots.  (I know someone said that much better but can't call to mind the quote).  
    In a way, the movie relates to "growth mindset." Tess is limited by everyone's view of here as "just a secretary" and no one takes her seriously in that role.  She believes in herself, though, putting herself through night school and working on ways to get a job in the business world.  She finds a way to prove herself and her ideas are great.  It's when they all realize that she was "just a secretary" that it goes awry.....but a happy ending is there for dreamer Tess who "made it happen."  
     I need to make some time to watch this movie in full again! It is a classic with so many relevant themes and ideas today....even if the hair and clothes just scream EIGHTIES!! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

James on the Saddle, Wendy and the Candlesticks #sol15 Day 17

     I had a moment last week where I laughed so hard I was crying.  It came at a rather inopportune time, as I was dictating sentences for the students to write down during a Fundations (word study)review.  The sentences are written in the teacher's edition and you are supposed to read them and the students write them- a fairly straightforward endeavor.  Except the first sentence I read involved James getting riding instruction on a saddle and the kids were befuddled.  
     "What type of instruction- writing?" 
     "Why is he on a saddle?" 
     "What is a saddle?"
    By the time I was done with the James saddle sentence, it was time to read the one about Wendy.  The sentence I was to dictate said: "At the explosion, Wendy dropped the beautiful candlesticks." I could not even read it for laughing so hard.  I suppose it is not very funny that Wendy was at an explosion, but I kept thinking she had bigger worries than dropping her beautiful candlesticks.  They waited for me to stop laughing but they were laughing too as I kept attempting to dictate the sentence, only to collapse in giggles again.  After multiple tries, I read the sentence.
    What's funny now, is that the kids keep bringing up Wendy and her candlesticks.  I was reading a story to them that made mention of an explosion, and one of my clever kids said, "I hope Wendy held onto her candlesticks."  They find ways to weave Wendy into the conversation, and even work back to James and his saddle.  It is funny and brings some comic relief to the serious business we are mostly engaged in during the day.  
   I was thinking about challenging the class to write Wendy's story, explaining how she came to be holding beautiful candlesticks near an explosion.  I think it would be interesting to see all the different stories that could develop from that one ridiculous dictated sentence.  It feels so good to laugh in the classroom and it so much fun when we are all in on the same joke together, building our community with camaraderie.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Working Mom's "I am" Poem #sol15 Day 16

Disclaimer: I have nothing but respect for moms who "stay at home." It is the hardest job.  In my brief stints being a stay at home mom while on maternity leave and on summer vacations, I know that the days are exhausting and challenging.  This poem attempts to capture how I feel about life at the moment, being a third grade teacher and a mom to 2 kids under the age of 5.

I am a Working Mom

I am exhausted and never done. 
I wonder how to find the elusive "work-life" balance 
I hear my alarm go off at 3am and trudge downstairs to do the work I couldn't do when the kids were awake
I see my work bag,bulging, begging me to finally pay it attention.
I want 5 minutes to myself.
I am exhausted and never done.

I pretend I can do it all
I feel the need to eat lots of chocolate
I touch my children's soft little cheeks and hug them.
I worry I am missing important moments with them.
I cry when I feel like I am drowning from it all.
I am exhausted and never done.

I understand this is a season in my life and will get easier.
I say, "I need to appreciate my blessings."
I dream that I will be organized and on top of everything
I try to be the best mom and teacher possible
I hope my efforts are not in vain.
I am exhausted and never done. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

#sol15 Day 15 Happy Birthday Megan!

     It's hard to imagine now a world without Megan.  Big blue eyes, blond pigtails, following me, calling me, snuggling, laughing, amazing me each day.  
     "You happy Mommy?" she asks me often, patting my face.  When she senses I'm not, usually after she's thrown a bowl of goldfish all over the floor or dumped out her juice, she says, "I'm sorry, Mommy....it was an AGZ-IDENT."
    Megan turns 2 years old tomorrow.  It has been 2 years since this loving, sweet, smart, funny, sassy girl came into our lives, completing our family.  She was the most unexpected blessing, the surprise gift I will forever be grateful for.      While Alex was the baby I prayed for, visited doctors for, closely monitored each twinge for signs of life, Megan caught me completely off-guard.  I was working with a nutritionist to lose the baby weight from Alex, getting back into the swing of teaching, and was all consumed by my 20 month old son.  Another baby felt like something we might get around to someday...maybe.  I just couldn't imagine loving anyone or anything else more than I adored Alex.  I wasn't ready. 
   But then suddenly, miraculously, fortunately, I discovered I was having another baby.  It was an amazing gift since having Alex was not effortless and involved a lot of fear and anxiety that I might never be able to be a mom.  Now, I would be a mom of two and I had to reset my goals, expectations, and vision  for our lives.  
    When I was pregnant with Alex, I read all the baby books, wrote him poems and letters, and dedicated a lot of time to thinking about being a mom.  When I was pregnant with Megan, I was already a mom, working full-time, and I didn't have the same time to write to her and read all the pregnancy updates.  I had a toddler, kindergarten kids to teach, and I was exhausted.  I find being a mom means always feeling guilty about something and the second child gets a little less of that "first time mom excitement."  
     We found out that our baby was to be Megan a couple of days before Hurricane Sandy hit.  I was sure she would be a boy since boys dominate my husband's family, but Megan surprised us once again when we found out we were having a girl! A little sister for Alex.  We bought shade of pink for her bedroom with a lamb theme for her bedding and friends and family showered us with beautiful clothes and gifts fit for a princess.  
    2 years ago, our family changed forever when Megan arrived, all 8 pounds 14 ounces of her.  She was a beautiful baby who cried a lot at first (acid reflux) and liked the white noise of the microwave vent.  She loved her brother and belly-laughed the most when he was around, doing crazy things.  This past year, she went from a cuddly, mostly stationary baby to a little girl who runs, jumps, climbs, sings, tells stories, makes "Sven Soup" (she puts the reindeer from "Frozen" on her play kitchen stove and laughs gleefully as we tell her not to cook poor Sven!).  She is affectionate and loving, independent-minded, artistic.  She loves songs and rhymes and books and people.  She is adored by many and has brought a new feeling of joy and harmony to our family.  
   Happy 2nd Birthday to my Megan, the best surprise I ever got.