Monday, December 26, 2016

#SOL16 Farewell to My OLW

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2016

#SOL16 Love Lives Forever

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#SOL16 4 Years Later

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

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

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

Diagnosis: Strep throat. 

So here I am, on a Wednesday afternoon. 

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

#SOL16 Grit

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


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

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

If he fell once, he fell one hundred times. 

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

I was in awe.

It was amazing.

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

#SOL16 That Overwhelmed Feeling

That overwhelmed feeling.

That overloaded, overstuffed workbag, overwhelmed feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

#SOL16 Megan and Our Books

(A stoat)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

#SOL16 Each Kindness

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

I am a teacher. 

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

There is so much noise everywhere now. 

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

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

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

But back to being a teacher. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

#SOL16 Lesson From Piper

Have you seen the Disney Pixar Short film Piper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

#SOL16 The 4000th follower...

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

I have 3,997 followers on wait, down to 3,995. Now back to 3,996. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#SOL16 Petrified at Hershey Park

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

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

Tentative Title: Petrified at Hershey Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

#WhyIWrite #SOL16 #DigiLitSunday

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

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

This is why I write. 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

#SOL16 Grateful for the Seasons

And just like that, a new season is here.

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

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

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

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

There is beauty in all of it.

I am grateful for the seasons. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

#SOL16 Dear Alex

Dear Alex,

We are just a couple of days away from your 6th birthday. I remember so clearly how I felt six years ago- impatient, anxious, so ready for your arrival. Every baby is a miracle, but you felt especially like one. Seeing your little round face for the first time was one of the best moments of my life- it was like I had always known you even though it was the first time I was seeing you. 

You were the most gorgeous baby. Round, chubby, with big eyes and a gummy smile. I loved holding you, rocking you, singing to you, being your mom. We went to Gymboree, music classes, and library classes where you promptly fell asleep in the middle of an exciting rendition of "Dancing Queen" where the other babies were shaking maracas (or chewing on them). 

Leaving you to go back to work was one of the hardest things I ever did. I remember that first rainy morning, when you were 11 months old, and I had to hand you to a woman I never saw before in the daycare drop off room. I had taken you several times over the summer so both you and I would be comfortable with your new school. I knew who your teachers would be, but this morning, they were not in sight at early drop off. I was returning to teaching after a year off with you and needed to get to work. You cried as I tried to hand you to the lady, trying to hold onto me. I steeled myself that I had to leave quickly- it would be best for you and me- and felt numb walking out. 

As the year went on, I saw many happy pictures of you and the other babies painting, playing, and enjoying your routine. It was okay, but didn't make saying goodbye to you each day any easier. 

When I found out I was pregnant with your sister, a blessing that was also a complete surprise, I had mixed feelings at first. You were my world- how could I ever love anything else as much as I love you? You were so young- not even two years old when I found out I was pregnant. I wouldn't have timed it that way, but life has its own plans. 

Saying goodbye to you on the night we left to have Megan was so hard. You were happy to go have a sleepover with Naya, but I felt sad as I said goodbye, knowing life would change forever with the addition of our newest family member. 

It was hard for you at first- you didn't speak to me the first day I came home with Megan. But as you grew more comfortable with having a little sister, you came to be her biggest entertainer. She called you "Agex" and looked for you all the time. She still looks to do just what you do, wants to have everything you have and catch up to you.

Alex, you will be 6 in a couple of days. This past summer, I saw you grow and shine in new ways. As you graduated preschool, you proudly sang, "The Best Day of My Life" and "Rainbow Connection" with gusto. You easily adjusted to camp and became a swimming pro, where just last summer you clung to the railing of the pool and refused to go in. This year, I watched you jump off a diving board, backwards, and tumble your way to a yellow-belt at tae kwon do and I knew you were coming into your own. 

You've been in kindergarten for a month now and I am so proud of how you've acclimated to your new school, the new routines and your new teacher. You have so many friends and are well-liked. You are funny, playful, a great climber- but what's more, you are kind. You look to include others. You care about how people feel. This, I am most proud about. 

My heart is so full and there is so much I want to say. The news has been full of such heart-breaking stories- an adorable 6 year old boy shot and killed as he walked onto his school's playground, a mother killed by a train moments after dropping her baby off at daycare. I am so aware that life is uncertain and often unfair and my mind has been spinning with the unthinkable possibility of losing you or something happening to me, where I'd be gone from your life. These thoughts keep me awake at night. Why would we get a happy life when so many others don't? Why should I think that we will be okay when the other parents all thought that before they had tragedy strike their families?

These are not thoughts I can share with you, and these are not thoughts I want to be thinking as we prepare to celebrate your birthday. 

And, so, as you turn six, my Alex- I want you to know that you were what I always wanted but were more than I ever expected. You have filled my heart with unimaginable joy. Parenting isn't easy and there are moments of worry and frustration, but I would never trade it for anything. I am so proud of you and love you with everything I am. I can't wait to have a happy celebration this week as you turn six years old. 


Sunday, September 25, 2016

#SOL16 Ticket to the World? Library Card

Here is what I plan to say to my students tomorrow as I show them a mystery box: "What if I told you that inside this box was a way for you to travel back in time? A way for you to explore all the places you've always wanted to go without leaving your home? What if I told you that inside this box was a way for you to get smarter and wiser and become a kinder person? Would you want to open the box and find out how to make these things happen?"

When they open the box, they will find... a library card....of course.

A library card is your ticket to the world. It is your free access pass to all the great works of literature, to books of all types and genres. A library card allows you to borrow books you might not otherwise be able to afford or have room for in your house. You can read them, return them, take out others. 

Libraries also offer quality programs and classes for children, teens, and adults. There are computers available. There are magazines and newspapers. It is a place to gain knowledge and all are welcome. 

I love the library. 

So how could I forget that September is Library Card Sign-Up Month? I was almost ready to turn the calendar to October before realizing that September was nearly done and I haven't talked to my students about the library. September is a hectic back-to-school time, and I nearly missed my chance to make my plea to my students to get their own library card. 

Just under the wire, here's what I'll do:

I am offering my students "The Library Card Challenge." If they send me a picture of themselves with their library card, or come to school with their library card, they will be entered into a raffle. The winning student can select a book from the Scholastic Book Order. 

I also created a Padlet and I hope you might help me! Here is the link:
You can share what having a library card has meant for you in your life. I would love to be able to show this to my students and help them see the power that comes from owning your very own library card. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

#SOL16 Humble and Kind

I've always loved words of advice in the form of poems and songs. Rudyard Kipling's "If" has been a favorite, as well as "Free to Wear Sunscreen" from Baz Luhrmann. Tim McGraw's song "Humble and Kind" is my new favorite!

I love everything about this song. Time spent with grandparents is never wasted- those moments are among my most treasured memories and helped me grow as a person. I love the line, "When the work you put in is realized, let yourself feel the pride, but always stay humble and kind." 

For myself, for my children, and for my students- can there be any greater lesson? Being a good person- a person who is honest, caring, hardworking, a person who doesn't hold grudges and keeps his/her word...a person of integrity- this is what I want to be and help others become. It's why I'm a teacher.

In writing this post, I've discovered "Humble and Kind" is also a picture book (adding that to my list to purchase!) and a movement, #stayhumbleandkind
Perhaps I've come late the the "Humble and Kind" party, but glad I am here now! It's a song worth listening to and I love the way it was written. So here is some inspiration for your Tuesday Slice:

These are the lyrics: 
You know there's a light that glows by the front door
Don't forget the key's under the mat
When childhood stars shine,
Always stay humble and kind
Go to church 'cause your mamma says to
Visit grandpa every chance that you can
It won't be wasted time
Always stay humble and kind
Hold the door, say "please", say "thank you"
Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie
I know you got mountains to climb
But always stay humble and kind
When the dreams you're dreamin' come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride
But always stay humble and kind
Don't expect a free ride from no one
Don't hold a grudge or a chip and here's why:
Bitterness keeps you from flyin'
Always stay humble and kind
Know the difference between sleeping with someone
And sleeping with someone you love
"I love you" ain't no pick-up line
So always stay humble and kind
Hold the door, say "please", say "thank you"
Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie
I know you got mountains to climb
But always stay humble and kind
When those dreams you're dreamin' come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride
But always stay humble and kind
When it's hot, eat a root beer popsicle
Shut off the AC and roll the windows down
Let that summer sun shine
Always stay humble and kind
Don't take for granted the love this life gives you
When you get where you're going don't forget turn back around
And help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind

Sunday, September 18, 2016

#DigilitSunday Digital Drafting & Revising

My fingers fly over the keyboard. I'm not certain when my fast typing skills kicked in- I used to ace the timed tests in keyboarding class in high school, but I think I really learned how to be speedy during a job in college where I had to retype many articles. My thoughts flow and my fingers keep up. When I'm done writing, I can reread, delete, cut and paste, and quickly change what needs fixing. 

Writing in a notebook is not as natural for me. It's not my go-to place to write. I hate having to cross out words and scribble them above or in the margins. When I was younger, the one area I always disappointed my teachers was penmanship, specifically pencil grip. I could not hold the pencil properly. Occupational therapy wasn't as widely understood when I was a student in the 1980's, but I would have been a perfect candidate. My fine motor skills are just not the best, and it slows me down when it comes to writing. 

I love digital drafting and revising. I love being able to type in Google Doc and colleagues can immediately comment or edit. This summer, I was working on a proposal for a project I am really excited about. I was able to share it with a few trusted friends and colleagues who could offer feedback and make edits right on the document. I could then decide if I wanted to accept the changes or keep it as is. Digital drafting and revising allows for collaboration in ways that would take several steps longer in other forms. 

Implications for my students? Last year, I had a student who really struggled with penmanship and his handwriting was arduous, then unreadable. He had many ideas but did everything he could to avoid writing. Allowing him to type during writing time helped a lot. While he still did not have stamina for writing, he was able to produce something digitally. I think, in time, he will grow in stamina for writing if allowed to compose and revise digitally. 

Blogging is another way to help students produce digital drafts and then revise them. I am launching blogging in my third grade class this week and I'm so excited to see what students compose and share!

I am grateful for digital drafting, revising, and this community! 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11/16 #SOL16

15 years is a lot of life to live.

In 15 years, I've had so many experiences and adventures. I got engaged, planned a wedding, got married, had a honeymoon. I had two babies who have grown into children. I've grown in my career and as a person. 

I thought about this as I remembered a student I had in kindergarten years ago, a little boy who lost his mother in 9/11, when he was only two years old. Did she kiss him in his crib that morning, as she rushed out the door to make the train? Did she get the chance to hold him and spend time before walking out of her home, never knowing it would be the last time? She never got the chance to have these 15 years. The two year old she said goodbye to is now a high school senior. I ache thinking of all the time she never got. 

9/11 has hit me harder this year than ever before. In 2001, I was barley out of adolescence myself- a 22 year old, just beginning my teaching career. 15 years older, I have a new perspective on that day. I feel the loss of all those lives so much more deeply than I did then. I feel the pain of parents losing their children;I feel the pain of spouses talking on the phone for the last time, knowing death was imminent; I feel the pain of the parents knowing they are not getting out of there alive, leaving their children behind. 

So many stories. So much heartache. 

9/11 reminds me we are all on borrowed time. That tragedy can strike on an unsuspecting, bright-sky Tuesday morning that still felt like summer. That time can feel endless and infinite, but it's not. Not at all. That I must be grateful for the 15 years I've been given that others were not-who knows why? That tomorrow is never promised. 

And so, on 9/11/16, I took my children and my nephew to the playground. I felt the sunshine on my face and watched as the breeze rustled my daughter's golden hair. In her "American flag dress" as she likes to call it, she twirled around the playground, without a care. 

And I counted my blessings and mourned for all those who never got the chance to live these last 15 years. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

#SOL16 They Remember

Putting the finishing touches on my classroom on Friday afternoon, I looked up to see him filling my doorway. 

"You don't remember me, do you?" he asked.

And in a moment, I did. 

He was much taller, his hair was much thicker and curlier, but in his face, I saw the kindergarten boy he once was.

When I said his name, his smile grew, astonished I remembered. I went to hug him.

"I've been looking for you for years," he said. 

He told me he doesn't get into trouble anymore- he's matured. I think back to when he punched a first grade teacher in the eye as a new kindergarten student. That year, he was in trouble all the time. 

It was the year in teaching that made me doubt myself and my ability to effectively manage a classroom. The room was full of little people with big needs. A child who would run out of the classroom in a manic state; another child who could not get along with peers and would spit and fight over every crayon or spot in line; a class full of kids who did not respond when you called their names- I had to explicitly teach them to look up at me when I said their names. A year where your challenges were so many that you felt like a hamster on a wheel- getting nowhere, yet working so very hard.

But he'd been looking for me for years. I have thought of him through the years as well. Some names and faces fade from my memory, as I've been teaching now for 15 years, yet others remain unforgettable. This boy, I remember. 

I showed him pictures of my children. He sheepishly said he could not pronounce my new name and was it okay to call me Miss Neagle? Of course it was, I said, with a smile.

He has a little sister now, he told me, and she will be in this school. I said how nice it would be to see him when he visits her and I hope he comes by to say hello. He starts his sophomore year in high school in a couple of days. 


All of this happened a couple of days after I had my own reunion with a teacher. On a playdate with my son Alex, the great uncle of the little boy we were visiting appeared. My memory fired up- that voice, the familiar figure- it had to be....I asked, "Were you a teacher?" He had been my biology teacher in my freshman year of high school. Over 23 years ago...yet I remembered him almost instantly. 


And so, as I am about to start my 15th year in education, I think of these stories as proof that teachers live on in the memory of their students, long after your last day together. We remember our teachers, our students remember us. What a responsibility to be the adult that shapes a class full of learners for one year of their know that you will forever be the answer when someone asks, "Who was your third grade teacher?" 

They will remember. I carry this in my heart, knowing what I do today must be full of joy, passion, and purpose. Each day, each all counts. 

Wishing everyone the best school year! 

Monday, August 29, 2016

#SOL16 Kindergarten!

Dear Kindergarten,

You and I- we go way back. 2003 to be precise, when I became a kindergarten teacher. Man, I didn't know what I was in for! There is no exhausted like  kindergarten teacher exhaustion in the first few weeks of September. I quickly learned singing is survival in kindergarten and we sang throughout the day! Back then, we painted, played, celebrated. We had Teddy Bear Tea Parties and a Q and U Wedding. I thought I would always be a kindergarten teacher.

Was it you who changed or I? Maybe we both did. When I came to you, I was single and still a relatively new teacher. You were pre-Common Core and much more relaxed. As the years went on, you became more rigorous. Less play. Tests. Quadruple the amount of sight words expected to be learned. I got married and had two children. We went our separate ways- I left you for the upstairs third grade classroom and pushed you out of my mind.

Till now. You see, Kindergarten, my son, Alex is about to join you. A different town, a different school, but Kindergarten all the same. He is my pride and joy. He is the "bear of my heart". He's nervous and I'm nervous. You would think I would know exactly what to expect, having been there-done that for years as a teacher. It's all different when you are the parent. The postcards I used to send- well, we got one from Alex's teacher. It meant so much. Now I see how all those little touches really do mean something to a family about to send their most precious person out into the world. 

So, Kindergarten, go easy on him. Excite him. Embrace him. Play music and encourage him to dance. Bring out the paints and playdough. There is time for sight words and number bonds. Don't label him or sort him or rank him. Let him feel loved and comfortable, safe and happy. Fill him with wonder and joy to be a learner in school. We've done our best to teach him to be a good person- to be kind and respectful, considerate and polite. Please keep teaching him those lessons because they are the most important ones. 

Kindergarten, I loved you once upon a time and the truth is, I still carry you in my heart. Please take care of my little boy.

A Former Kindergarten Teacher/ Current Kindergarten Mom 

Monday, August 22, 2016

#SOL16 The Hard Questions

"Mommy, will we go to Heaven at the same time?"

Megan is cuddled up next to me, in my bed, as I try to get her to fall asleep while simultaneously keeping up with the #nctechat about writer's workshop. Her own little princess bed in her pink and green room down the hall is alone again (naturally) as she prefers sleeping next to me. It's a hard habit to break and this summer we've gone backwards. As I am tweeting on my phone, Megan, at 3 years old, decides we need to have a philosophical conversation about life, death, and the afterlife. 

"Why did GG die?" she asks.
"Where did GG die?"

"Will I die?"
"Can Simba come back?"

 (Simba was my in-law's dog who recently passed away this summer. Megan would bring him bones each time she visited.)

I don't know the answers. My heart aches when she asks if we will die at the same time. I can't imagine life without her and don't ever want to leave her, either. She says she doesn't want to go to heaven- she wants to be with her family here. I want to reassure her that she won't die for a long time, that we are all safe and healthy and no one is going to heaven anytime soon. I feel myself lying through my teeth, because of course no one is guaranteed a tomorrow. A first grader can get gunned down in her classroom. A toddler can get snatched by an alligator while on a family trip to Disney World. Terrible, unimaginable, horrific things happen every single day. 

Clearly, I can't tell her that.

When my grandmother (GG) died in December, Megan didn't seem upset or aware. My son, Alex, who will be 6 in October, took it much harder and asked a lot of questions. It seems Simba dying has caused Megan to think about life and death and GG now more than before. She says she and Alex can "rescue" GG from heaven and bring her back. I try to explain it doesn't work that way, and that GG is happy in heaven and doesn't want to be rescued.  

But what do I know?

Tonight, as Megan lays down next to me (again- little bed vacant), she tells me she wants to have a good dream. She says she dreamed about a monster last night, but he was a good monster. He made her pastina and carried her and took her to Little Gym and helped her on the bars. She can't imagine a mean monster- only a kind one who is apparently a better chef than me. 

Tonight, she believes in a safe, happy world. The hard questions are not voiced tonight- instead, she drifts off to sleep, with her stuffed baby fox under her arm, and good monsters who hug her in her dreams. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

#SOL16 Ditch the Dojo?

Last week, Dr. Mary Howard posted this on Facebook. My initial response, which I wrote as a comment, was this: 

 I also dislike public shaming systems but I've used Class Dojo and don't find it to be like that. I don't publicly display the points. I've tied the dojo dollars into a class economy where kids get paychecks and can purchase brain break coupons or the right to sit in the rocking chair at reading time. Paychecks were given privately so students weren't aware of how many points the others received. I did give a certificate to the high dojo scorer of the week and many times it was a student who put forth a lot of effort, despite academic challenges. Class dojo makes it easy to be in touch with the parents and send them pictures and class happenings in real time. They also have a great video series on growth mindset that my students enjoyed and sparked good discussions. There is no public shaming in my classroom and class dojo has been a positive 
way for me to share with parents. 

The truth was, entering the conversation, I really believed I was right about Class Dojo. When I taught kindergarten, I had been guilty of the clip system. In my early days of teaching kindergarten, I used color cards- green was good, orange was like a warning, yellow had a small consequence (like missing 5 minutes of centers) and red was a note home or a phone call and the loss of center time (a major deal in kindergarten). If you "stayed on green", you would get a star on your card. 5 stars meant a sticker and 10 meant a prize. 

I'm ashamed of this now. At the time, this type of behavior system was what was recommended to teachers. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought the visual display was what students needed. I thought rewarding students who showed "good behavior" was the right thing to do and the students who acted out deserved a consequence. In later years, I changed the color card system to the clip up, clip down system. Everyone started their day on the green paper plate. Positive behavior meant you could move your clip to blue then purple, negative behavior took you down to orange, yellow, and, for the truly naughty, red. This was a system that others advised me to adopt- a way for students to "move up" and still a way for them to move down, if they were not behaving. I uncomfortably realized that some students always moved their clip down and everyone knew it. 

Why didn't I see this as a public display of humiliation? Why didn't I acknowledge that some students were always, always, below green, while others- the "good" students frequently found themselves on purple. Why did't I see that I was creating identities for students and not really teaching them much about changing their behavior- just labeling it, rewarding it, or punishing it.  After reading posts by Pernille Ripp, I decided to scrap the clip up, clip down system when I made the move to third grade. I recognized that publicly posting students' behavior was unkind, unhelpful, and nothing I would want for my own children.

But then I heard of Class Dojo. It was a way to integrate technology with classroom management. Each student had their own avatar and could earn points, or lose them, based on their behaviors. I could communicate with the parents as a whole class and on an individual basis. Students could earn Dojo dollars, which could be used to buy classroom privileges like sitting in the rocking chair or selecting the Brain Break we picked on Go Noodle. At the end of the year, I would do a Dojo Auction and give away books and materials in exchange for Dojo dollars. I never publicly posted the students' points and would give out the paychecks individually so students did not know what other students received. I would give a certificate to the "High Dojo Scorer of the Week" to recognize those students who were working hard. I felt very good about all of this. 

So, when I commented on Dr. Mary's post, I believed Dojo was doing no harm. I knew my students were very eager to get Dojo paychecks and it added an element of excitement to our week. I knew their parents liked the way Dojo opened communication and was an easy way for us to share information and reminders. But then, the conversation continued. Ryan Scala responded to my message very respectfully, but also raising questions about compliance and if students should receive paychecks for kindness and hard work. He also pointed out that it doesn't seem to work well with a growth mindset and only rewards successes. Mary commented as well, pointing out that the research shows extrinsic rewards do not  further intrinsic learning or offer strategies for students who have difficulty "behaving" (such as our ADHD students). 

This made me think of one of my students, who struggled with ADHD and often received the lowest Dojo paycheck each week. Was this really fair? When peers without this issue are able to attend and focus, is it really right to give them more Dojo bucks when they biologically can attend more readily? We know our students do not come from the same situations or backgrounds. Is it fair to award some and punish others? Should that even be my role? As a teacher, shouldn't I be TEACHING my students how to appropriately manage their own behavior instead of giving them points for sitting quietly? 

Dr. Mary asked, "Would something else work better?" And that got me could I still keep the things I like about Dojo, but stop giving and taking away points? For this coming year, I settled on Remind as a way to send messages to parents and keep communication open. I can still show my students the Class Dojo growth mindset videos, which are fun and open up conversations about persistence and failure. Instead of Dojo paycheck day, what else could I do to add an element of free choice and fun into our week? Might makerspace be the way to go? Or genius hour? Maybe I could try a period a week where students could sign up to be the teachers, like an Edcamp feel. 

And what about discipline? Behavior management? What will I do without a rewards and consequences system? Confession- I'm a little scared. This will be the first time in my whole teaching career that I haven't had a "plan" in place. I'm thinking we will talk a lot about what a community is, what it looks like, and feels like. I might need to have private behavior conferences with students. I will need to teach students strategies. I'll have to work to make class  more engaging so they don't need the promise of a point to stay on track. It might be a disaster. But my heart tells me I'm on the right track by changing course, ditching the points, and trying to create a community without dollars and clip charts.

Some scoff at the idea of being a "connected educator", saying they don't "do Twitter" or don't have time to have these conversations.  But how do we revise our thinking and stay current in our field if we don't connect? In an extremely contentious election year, having civil, respectful conversations where we start from different viewpoints and can end up changing our mind is really what we want our children to know about debate and differences. Sometimes you agree to disagree. But when you listen with an open mind and heart, sometimes you move to another level of understanding, and you just might change your mind.  

Thank you to Pernille Ripp, Dr. Mary Howard, Ryan Scala, and all who helped me understand why I should rethink Class Dojo. This year, I'm ditching the Dojo dollars. 


The The 
The tru