#IMWAYR It’s Monday. What are you reading?

Project LIT Book Club Edition

If you read my post last Wednesday, you know I’m in the middle of previewing books for our maiden season with Project LIT book clubs. I’m also madly reading because summer book orders are due soon. Here are several titles I’ve read in the past week.

 

Come Juneteenth by Ann Rinaldi

This story, new to me, of how the slaves in Texas waited an additional two years before learning of their freedom. The author invites us into a family for a decidedly gentle look at the slave experience. Sis Goose, although technically owned and a slave, has been raised since infancy as a member of the family. She is genuinely loved by her adopted parents and siblings, each in their own way, yet not one of them reveals to her that she is legally free.

The characters feel real, although the slavery feels whitewashed. Still I found it compelling enough to read in a single sitting. Because of a romantic relationship and pregnancy as well as passing allusions to “men visiting the quarters” this may be best for middle school readers, though a few of our 5th graders could handle it.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

When I opened the pages of this book I realized I’d read it before. This mostly gentle story of one Brooklyn girl uncovering what happened on September 11th had left a warm impression with me. Through the first half of the novel I found myself nodding at the messages of acceptance (of others and ourselves), friendship and community, of home being more about our families than our surroundings, and about schools being places to gently probe challenging issues. In it readers can be exposed to poverty, mental illness (likely PTSD), racial or religious intolerance, and one event that has shaped all our modern lives in ways that leave them feeling as though it is possible to survive, even thrive under the weight of them if one has family and friends.

I think many of our readers could read this if they chose to. There is one scene where the 5th grade friends look up a video of the towers falling. Some may be concerned that the mention of it could give readers the idea of searching out video themselves. After thinking about it, I don’t think they will. The characters are so moved by viewing the video, the author conveys the heaviness with which it presses on them. One wishes she could unsee it. I think the effect is that readers will understand the gravity of the event and can witness it at arms length without actually watching people jump from the towers.

Best of all, while the challenges aren’t magically removed in the end, the author does leave readers with a sense of hope. She leaves us with the idea that knowing the truth, while hard, can make room for us to heal.

Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

This author of Shooting Kabul has once again written a compelling story that, through the experiences of one young Syrian girl, introduced us to the many people and groups who are part of the tangled conflict in her homeland. I must admit that although I’ve known, in a distant sort of way, about the tragedies unfolding in Syria, nothing in the news made it feel as real or as personal as this book.

A young girl is separated from her family during an attack as helicopters drop barrel bombs on her home. The story, which spans about three days, traces her journey to be reunited with them. In the process she meets other children affected by the years of war, encounters rebels, Christians, government forces and a gang in the dangerous streets of the city that has always been her home.

More than anything this story puts a human face to the suffering. I would be comfortable shelving it in my book room for 4th and 5th grade readers, though I would undoubtedly get some pushback for the scariness of the bombings. In some ways it is no more brutally honest than the opening pages of Charlotte’s Web or the travels of Edward Tulane.

Like Vanessa by Tami Charles

This book is most appropriate for readers a little older than mine. At first I didn’t know if I could find a way into the story of a girl from the projects who wanted more than anything to win a beauty pageant. But just under the surface was the truer motivation–she wanted to believe she was worthy of being loved. Abandoned by a mother she could barely remember, invisible to her gruff and constantly working father, Vanessa feels unlovable. It takes her alcoholic grandfather, devoted cousin who’s hiding his own secret, and a new music teacher to show her she is lovable, worthy, talented, and beautiful.

Vanessa’s cousin hides that he is gay because he lives in a community that is intolerant of who he is. Race is an overt issue in the novel. And a local drug-running gang leader is killed (offstage) in a drive by shooting. All of these mature issues make the story real, but best for readers who have already encountered challenging books-or life stories.

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Although I am an outsider to both basketball and rap, I devoured this story of brothers, of perfect partnership and the forces that pull us apart, of seemingly perfect families with hidden fractures. And of finding our way back to each other.

This will definitely find a home in our section of sports fiction, though I’ll add it to a text set on family relationships when my 4th graders begin their social issues unit. I’ll book talk it to readers who think they can only read books with the fewest pages. The white space around the edges of the page will make it non-threatening and the verse will pull them in. I’ll book talk it to readers who don’t think they like sports books to show them that sometimes the basketball on the cover is just a way of getting at life’s other conflicts–sibling rivalry, jealousy, poor judgment in a moment and regret that lingers. And I will play a recording of Kwame Alexander reading…because who could resist?

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

This novel of feeling alone and out of place, then finding one’s people and oneself is about as middle grade as they come. Two tweens, each facing a life-shifting crisis, forge an unconventional friendship through an online Scrabble game. Her father, as old as her friends’ grandparents, is in the hospital after a sudden heart attack. His parents suddenly announced they’re divorcing. Neither saw it coming. Both are left with big feelings and nowhere to turn. Turns out once they discover they have each other, they each find others closer to home.

I loved the message that it’s OK to be who you are, even if you’re considered a little quirky by others. And while you’re busy trying to avoid judgment…maybe don’t jump to judging others. Friendships change as we grow. It happens, but it isn’t the end. My realistic fiction section is saving a place for this one.

 

There are two more books waiting on the seat of my car, then it’s time to stock up with another batch. Some of the Project LIT titles weren’t available in my local library so I’ll need to track them down. I’m still looking to read:

 

  • Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (grades 5+)
  • Sunny and Patina by Jason Reynolds (gr 5-6)
  • The First Rule of Punk by Celia C Perez (grades 3-6)
  • Rebound by Kwame Alexander (grades 5-7)
  • The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (grades 5-6)
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (grades 3-7)

I’d already read and loved Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (grades 5-6), Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, and Amina’s Voice by (grades 3-7). Those will find homes in our book collection also.

Do you have recommendations of other titles that address issues in a way that honors young readers’ ability to think and their age? I’d love to hear from you.

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I Always Wondered When I Read Historical Fiction…

I’ve read countless books about World War II and the Holocaust. Some as early as high school, many since. I always wondered how ordinary Germans, everyday people, could allow such atrocities to occur. Obviously (to me) Jews were equally human. How could anyone be convinced to treat others with such inhumanity on the flimsy claims that they were somehow less-than us?

In books about the Civil Rights Era, how could people have been as callous and ignorant as to think that the color of one’s skin made one somehow better? What arrogance was that to think one life was more valuable than another?

It wasn’t until adulthood that I encountered the existence of American internment camps during World War II. “What?” I asked were they thinking to rip Japanese Americans from their homes because they looked different or because their parents or grandparents might have come from Japan? How could they have thought that herding humans into structures barely worthy of being called barracks in the middle of the desert, behind barbed wire could in any way coexist with our beloved Constitution guaranteeing due process of law to all? I read stories of families trapped in these camps and the sense of isolation, the loss of purpose, agency, independence, liberty to come and go.

Surely I would have done differently. I would have stood up. Spoken out.

In a college course on moral philosophy I learned the concept of moral luck. If we knowingly drive with faulty brakes and cause harm to someone we are morally culpable. Some of us may already be driving with faulty brakes, whether we know it or not. We have the fortune of not being tested. Since we haven’t yet harmed anyone, we haven’t yet fallen into a moral morass. Think of it another way. Those who lived in times and under a government that committed atrocities, like rounding up and imprisoning others in camps without due process or humane conditions, had the bad moral luck to live in such a set of circumstances. We judge them because they faced that moral test and fared badly. We had been fortunate, with the good moral luck not to need to know how we would have handled the complicated circumstances around events like the Holocaust or Japanese American Internment.

Until now.

In the past few days I read a tweet that said essentially, “If you asked yourself what you would have done during the Holocaust, look around. You’re doing it now.”

It was a gut punch.

The news that’s been gradually coming to light not only about children sometimes literally ripped from their parents’ arms at the border and taken has been difficult to hear. As a mother I’m horrified. As a citizen I’m outraged. Learning that the government, our government, plans to build tented camps on or near military bases in which to house children who have been forcibly separated from their families, has left me feeling helpless. And guilty.

Between the end of school, my kids sports events and school concerts, and…life…I haven’t found the time to fully research the situation and figure out where to turn, who to contact, what to yell to the rafters.

All those times I asked myself what German mothers were doing when other people’s children were being enslaved and murdered, I never thought that they were grocery shopping and fitting in laundry so their kids could have a clean uniform for the next day. I never considered that mothers in Seattle and Iowa were paying bills, and nursing sick babies or ailing parents.

Of course those are all things that need to be done. I’m doing some of the same things.

But I also know that I should be standing up. Speaking out.

What will it take to spur me to action? All of us? Because just as moral luck is real, so is the power of many. It has felt doable to join in marches and rallies for science, for women, against gun violence. Others organized those events and gave shape to the actions we could take. Am I waiting for others to be the first to speak out. First is exposed. It’s risky. Yet why should that matter if I believe strongly and firmly, as I do, that taking children from families and placing them in modern internment camps is reprehensible? I could shout it out into the universe, but who will hear? Who do I need to listen? Who has the power to make this stop?

I know, to make lasting change we must go to the ballot box. We will. I will.

But these children can’t wait for midterm elections, or the next presidential election. Who has the power today to stop this abhorrent practice?

If Tweeting and blogging aren’t enough? If notes to my democratic Congresswoman and Senators won’t shift the balance? Must we camp outside of Congress? Must we march to the very gates of these camps? What are we, am I, willing to risk?

Shouldn’t it be everything?

Because one life isn’t worth more or less than another.

These are the events by which history will judge us. The ones by which we will someday judge ourselves.

What do we do?

I’ve said to my son many times, “I will always love you, even when I don’t like your choices.” Today is flag day. I will always honor the ideals on which our country was founded. That doesn’t mean I will always agree with or respect the choices made by the people who represent that country now. It is because I honor the ideals and principles on which it was founded that I must oppose those choices and actions. Maybe that’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism. I hold you to a higher standard because of my love.

This I Believe…Kids Need Books that Look Like the Real World

I’ve discovered the Project LIT Community.

For half this year I’ve been thinking about how capable young readers are of encountering and grappling with challenging topics and issues in books if they’re handled with care.

For half that time I’ve been engaged in a debate with others who think these books are too hard or too dark for our readers.

Meanwhile, in our quiet suburban town with less diversity than we’d care to admit, the children in my school this year have dealt in real life with: the death and terminal illness of parents and caregivers, moving away, ugly divorces, blended families, abandonment, addiction, racism, economic struggle, surgery, heart conditions, and a deadly tornado that caught some in their cars within sight of home but unable to escape witnessing its fury. Those are just the real life issues that I know about in our school community of over 300 children.

They are loved and cared for at home by two parents, single parents, step parents, grandparents, uncles, two moms, and probably a few other arrangements of loved ones.

We have students with emotional challenges, academic challenges and physical challenges…and gifts.

They are loved and cared for at school by all of us. They are our kids.

Our kids impress me every day with their insight and energy, their consideration and carelessness. They are barely five, turning seven, already nine, and passing ten.

They are not carefree vessels to be filled. They are not incapable of understanding. Rather, some of them understand too much. And others, sensing it, wonder.

I am committed to building them a collection of books able to reflect back to them each of their experiences. A collection that can open windows for them to experiences beyond the sheltered ones some adults are sure they live. Stacks of books that act as glass doors, not only revealing the many truths of the outside world, but inviting our kids into the world in meaningful ways.

Childhood is not separate from life. It is the earliest part of life.

Childhood is not the free-est time in our lives. It is the most controlled.

Children are not incapable of thought. They are sometimes shielded from it.

Children do not need to practice now things that will be useful to them as adults. They need to strive now to build the skills that will serve them well throughout their entire lives…including now.

Starting with agency.

I feel strongly that books are a safe place to encounter both the great injustices and the great humanity of the world.  True, some conversations inspired by these books could be difficult–for us as adults. But if our kids trust us enough to broach the subject, we must trust them enough to listen to what they ask and what they share. We can be gentle without sugarcoating. We can be honest without being brutal. Most importantly, we can convey to them that we care and that we will be there for them as they step, however  tentatively or boldly, into issues and books.

And so I read…and read…and read to find the volumes that will speak volumes to my kids. As I turn the pages I think of them. Their faces drift in my mind’s eye. Their stories fill my heart as surely as those of the characters.

So next year, in collaboration with others in our school I will invite readers to join us in reading the kinds of books that open these doors. And we will sit together and talk about the books, about their feelings, about what they thought and what they will do now that these stories are a part of them. We will establish our own chapter of Project LIT Community. I’ve already reached out to our middle and high schools. I proposed that we invite older readers to have the same kinds of conversations, and then to join our elementary readers as mentors and fellow readers to share conversations together.

And so now I read.

 

 

 

On Monday I’ll share several that I’ve read this week, previewing potential titles starting with the ones selected by Project LIT Book Clubs.

That Face

Some of you may be sitting on a beach or your porch already with an ice cold lemonade and a good book. (In which case, I wish you well.) We have two more weeks of school after this one.

That means we’re in our end of year state-mandated universal-screener reading-test window. (Takes your breath away doesn’t it, when you say it like that?)

We already know tons about our readers…from reading alongside them and talking to them about books, reading what they’ve written about books and more. This test is a formality. A hoop we have to jump through. And so we do what we can to make it as painless as possible. Where some schools spend five days assessing across grades K-3, we spend two…or if everything goes smoothly, one and a half. For our Ks and 1s they’re pulled from their day for no more than 15 minutes. The 2s and 3s spend closer to an hour.

But no matter how we try to streamline and de-emphasize it, this morning I’m in a room full of third grade faces above their Chromebook screens. Shoulders are hunched dutifully. Eyes are dull.

The eyes. Her eyes.

From across the room, one pair of eyes looks at me sadly.

She came to us as one of nearly ten new third graders this fall, an unusually high number for us. Several of our new friends were far below grade level in reading when they arrived. So, on one hand, I already know that they were likely to struggle with grade-level text. I didn’t need this computer exam to tell me. On the other hand, I know something this test doesn’t. More than one of those readers who began in mid-first grade books in September are now meeting grade level. Others are very close.

Across the year their attitudes toward reading have shifted dramatically. Once stormy or grey, these days they’re more often sunny and welcoming.

But not today.

Today those sad eyes watched me from across the room. Telling me she felt less than today. Yesterday she celebrated successfully reading chapter books. Today the computer showed her she was not enough.

You and I both know that any reader who grows two years in one is more than enough.

We know that our enough-ness should never come from which books we can read.

But this throw-away-test, the one the adults in our building care very little about, made her feel uncared for.  So now my own eyes are downcast.

I will never again presume that as long as we minimize the minutes children have to spend on them, or brush them off with a breezy attitude, that they do not harm children. If it’s meant as a screener for reading success (or difficulty) and I already have a preponderance of evidence related to a child’s reading success or difficulty, why must I use the tool indiscriminately? Alas, this particular testing is mandated by law in my state. To whom can I appeal?

I believe the legislators were well-intentioned, but then, they aren’t reading experts. Or teachers at all. Why do they suppose that they must legislate that we do our jobs without understanding with any nuance what those jobs are? Most of us are here (many extra hours and heaps of emotional capital) because we care deeply and are absolutely committed to ensuring our students meet with success.

And they haven’t had to see those eyes.

Tomorrow and all the days until the end of our year (basically July), her teacher and I will do the work of building her back up. Reminding her of how tall she stands and how far she’s climbed through her own efforts. We’ll help her to see for herself that she is more than enough. But no matter the shine we put on it, we can never fully erase the dent that test put into her confidence and self-worth.

I’m so sorry, kiddo.

#IMWAYR It’s Monday. What Are You Reading this long weekend?

Reading during the school year comes in fits and spurts. Some of you may be starting your summer vacation, but I’ll be with students right through the end of June. So while you may be starting your summer #bookaday challenge, I snuck in a couple short books from last week’s BOGO Book Fair.

I enjoyed the first two…

from you to meFrom You to Me by K. A. Holt was a slim novel about finding oneself in the face of grief. Amelia realizes as she prepares for 8th grade to begin that she’ll be doing things that her big sister never did, since Clara died before she started 8th grade. Old friends and new, family by blood and by bond play an important role, but our choices and our hearts are ours to make and heal.

hello universeHello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly also tells the story of kids who feel resigned to being alone. Whether or not you believe in fate like Kaori Tanaka, you’ll smile as the universe seems to push four unsuspecting middle schoolers together. Painfully shy, but loyal Virgil finds himself in deep trouble. Kaori, his maybe psychic advisor, her little sister Gen, and Valencia another client venture out to find him. With a little push from the neighborhood bully (and the universe) strangers might find more than a missing boy and his guinea pig…could it be friendship?

And I’ve also started…

serpents secretThe Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta. So far it feels like an Indian spin on Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief. Kiran is completely blindsided by her parents’ disappearance on her twelfth birthday. Their puzzling note hardly seems to clear up the mystery before a snotty demon barges through her house and chases her into the company of two very different Indian princes and their flying horses. The adventure is just beginning, but already Kiran has saved one of the princes from the demon instead of waiting to be rescued. Although she’s a little swoony for the handsome prince, Kiran looks like she’s going to be a girl-power kind of princess. Which is just fine by me.

being the change coverBeing the Change by Sara K. Ahmed   To be fair I started this book last week and it isn’t from the book fair. This is a professional read that’s been on my radar for a little while. This one is going to change how I look at my teaching. It will change how I look at students. It’s one I’m going to need to talk about with colleagues. I’m plotting how to get copies for half the teachers at my school. For the other half, I’m plotting how to get copies of Kids First from Day One  by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz. If you have 10 or 12 copies of each title stashed away somewhere, let me know!

kids first from day one

Meanwhile…I’ll be reading.

They’re All Adventures–Some You Expect…

Rarely do I hear from my principal on the weekend, unless I’ve shot off a series of “I was just thinking…” or “We could try this…!” messages to her. She’s always a good sport about those. On Mothers Day she emailed me.

It went a little something like this:

There’s a situation. Second grade is scheduled for a field trip on Monday and two of the three teachers will be out sick…plus a dozen other staff members! I’m in PPTs and the other person I would ask is covering SBACs for another teacher who’s out. Can you, please, go on the field trip?

My response? Of course.

I hit send and realized I actually had no idea what I was getting myself into. Where was the field trip? What time were we leaving? Getting back? My answer wouldn’t have changed…but I might have packed a different lunch.

This, I told myself, was going to be an adventure.

Turns out we were going to a play about Pete the Cat.

Fast forward through the hurried morning routines as students unpacked the lunches they wouldn’t eat until 1:00 and used the bathroom for the last time before lunch. (Hmmm…)

Nearly sixty second graders were lined up in the front hallway of the school. Chaperones dotted along the lines. I gave the kind of rallying speech that I imagined championship coaches gave in the huddle or the locker room. You know the one. It went something like: please, oh please use good manners at the show! You’re representing our school. A gaggle of seven year-olds gave a thumbs up with their assent. Though one was convinced we were going to a movie theater and couldn’t understand why there wouldn’t be popcorn.

Two minutes passed quietly. A third minute foreshadowed restlessness. At five minutes the lines turned fuzzy with motion. I went to investigate the delay.

A breakdown they said (or possibly not). They were sending another bus. It would only be another ten minutes (or so).

Think fast.

“Second graders,” I stage whispered. “Make a circle right here. Pretend we’re sitting around a campfire.” I settled myself onto the floor and leaned in conspiratorially.

At this point, not only were the chaperones standing witness, so were several aides who collect notes and lunch counts in the front lobby, the school nurse, and my principal.

I looked each of my borrowed students in the eye as I gazed around the circle. “I’m going to teach you a game I used to play with my dad. And then I played it with my own boys.” I peeked back over my shoulder as if looking out for trouble. I looked back at the class and motioned for them to lean in close. Just above a whisper I continued over the rising ambient noise of the other second grade classes. “Here’s how it goes. First, you invent a character.

One of the boys called out, “Mr. Elephant” as if challenging me to address his manners or what he clearly intended to be an absurd choice of character.

Taking it in stride I mused, “Hmmm…he’s probably going to need a friend, someone else for our story….How about Lady Giraffe?” (Josh Funk’s characters were tripping through my head in that moment.)

A buzz rippled around our circle.

“Next we’ll need to decide where Mr. Elephant is.”

The same voice of sabotage called out, “A volcano!”

Ha! You can’t stop me with lava.

“So second graders, the name of the game is Can You? One person starts telling the story. It’s their job to get the character into some trouble. Then look around at the other storytellers and challenge them to get the character out of trouble by saying, ‘Can you?’ Ready? I’ll start.”

I began to weave a tale of a carefree Mr. Elephant and his friend, Lady Giraffe, hiking up a mountain for a picnic on a beautiful clear day. Then…(or as some kindergarten friends would say musically–duh, duh, duuuuh!) Elephant looked up to see a cloud pass over the sun.

I put our two heroes into a metaphorical pickle and challenged my little friends to get them out of it. One by one the class carried on the tale. Elephant fell toward boiling lava, was rescue/captured and taken to a zoo, escaped, found himself mysteriously at or on top of a castle facing guards with swords (At this point we invoked the no blood rule, or as one girl suggested, no violence. We also pressed pause and discussed how writers could try out one way a story could go, then rewind and try a different path– for example not stabbing but tripping, not tripping but convincing the guards.), in the moat where he couldn’t swim, in the ocean (where he really couldn’t swim!), swallowed alive by a giant octopus who then mysteriously fell back into the cauldron of boiling lava! (Good thing he’d been wearing a lava-proof suit all day.) All this time the circle was contracting as one child after another scooted in closer to the story. Alas! Before we could rescue Elephant once and for all by turning the octopus into a hot air balloon, our bus had arrived.

“Don’t worry,” I consoled them. “You can keep telling Mr. Elephant’s story on the bus. Or you could start a new story. My family used to play Can You? on long car rides.”

Several adventures later (Leaving late meant we arrived at the theater after the play had started.) we’d returned safely to school (There and Back Again, A Second Grade Tale). My principal asked how it had gone and commented on our class huddled together in the lobby. Without any of us noticing, she’d captured the moment.

#bestpartofmyday

IMG_1269

In case you were wondering if a busload of seven year-olds who waited twenty minutes for a bus to arrive, rode 45 minutes to see 40 minutes of a play that had already started actually did use their non-movie theater manners–They did! And it didn’t hurt that we were in the very last row of the theater so when one friend decided to stand or kneel on her chair everyone else could still see. They earned a little late recess after their very late lunch!

 

First Day– A Story in Three Acts

It doesn’t often happen that at this time of year we get new students. Today, in first grade, we had three.

You can be in our class!

I almost always get to meet new students before they begin. Meeting them and reading with them helps me to match them to a classroom and teacher. Sometimes it’s what their parents share that informs the decision most. It’s really a decision I weigh carefully. But every once in a while it feels like the universe has decided for me.

About a month ago, I met a boy. Let’s call him Ben.

We read together. We chatted. I didn’t observe anything that would cause me to place him in one class over another. Then, as I often do, I took him and his mother on a tour of the school. As we visited our school landmarks I shared more about our routines and traditions. First and second graders share a recess and lunch. You can return your library book for a new one any day at all! We have a bonus morning recess everyday when students arrive from the bus. Here’s the art room. Let’s peek in the music room.

Once in a while, magic.

As we quietly stepped into the music room a first grade class was playing a game, the rules of which I never discovered. Ben looked shyly around his mother. The game stopped mid turn. I asked them to excuse the interruption and shared that this was a new first grade friend. Kiddos swarmed nearer to us and chimed in: Hello. Which class will he be in? One boy came closer than the others and his voice rose above the rest.

“You can be in our class. We’ll be your friends,” Ryan said warmly as he looked Ben directly in the eyes.

Once we returned to the office, Ben’s mother pulled me aside. She explained some difficult experiences he’d had in his previous school. Situations where other children had been unkind, hurtful. What she wanted most was for him to feel safe. I don’t always ask this question, sometimes circumstances or numbers limit the choices in placement, but I did ask her: what kind of teacher do you think would be the best match for Ben if it were possible? She described what she felt would help him to thrive and one teacher immediately came to mind.

And do you know what? It was Ryan’s teacher.

Today, Ryan, who greets everyone with a smile and a wave, was there to welcome Ben to his new class. I hope he feels safe and welcome.

How do you like your school?

Starting in a new school can be hard. Children are resilient and, especially in elementary school, everyone wants to be friends with the new kid. But any move, especially mid-year moves, come with other challenges behind the scenes. New home. New town. New constellation of people who live with you. New teacher. New teams. New.

It’s enough to make the grown ups emotional.

I was touring the building with a mom and her two children. When I met them, they weren’t sure whether or not they’d be starting in our school this year. Maybe, they thought, it would be better to end the year in a familiar place amid all the other newness.

Throughout our walk, the girl bopped happily from place to place while her brother hung back, shy, unsure of all the newness we encountered.

Here’s the second grade hall if you join us next year. Here’s the playground, the gym. Here’s the first grade hall. Are those lockers?! Yup. Everyone has a place for their backpack and jacket. And here’s one first grade classroom. Would this be my classroom? I’m not sure yet.

Then something happened that hasn’t happened in all the years I’ve been doing this. Their mother looked directly at the first graders in the room and asked them, “Do you like your school?”

Time slowed down.

Front and center I saw little Billy. You never could be sure what was going to come out of his mouth when his eyes twinkled with mischief.

Around the edges of my vision swam sweet girls, quiet, helpful.

Billy loomed larger in my view as he turned fully to face us and boldly declared…

“Yes! Our school is great!”

It was as if time began again, children and senses unfrozen as other classmates chimed in their agreement.

I thanked them and excused us back into the hall. It was only a hop skip and a jump from the classroom to the office where our tour began.

This time when their mother asked them what they thought about whether they would rather start school now or wouldn’t they like to finish the year at their old school and come here for second grade, her son lit up.

“This year,” he beamed.

Today, he and Billy sat side by side on his first day.

Not what we expected.

From what I’d seen of his reserved nature (confirmed by Mom) and his sisters joie de vivre, I placed him in Billy’s class thinking that he’d gravitate toward some of the quieter boys there, or even the mother-hen girls. She, I surmised, would benefit from the slightly smaller class size across the hall.

I popped into first grade this morning to greet each of our newcomers.

Then again after the buses had rolled away I stopped to check with the teachers. How was today with our three new friends?

Not what we expected.

Ben seemingly settled right in. Thanks perhaps to a welcoming buddy.

The lively girl had been prim and proper.

And her brother seems to have found a kindred, mischievous soul in Billy from atop the stools at lunch!

#SOL What we can learn–about each other and writing–from vacation stories

“Tell me about your day,” I prodded my son as I picked him up after school.

“In Spanish we just talked about our vacations.”

I nodded. I’d heard quite a few snippets of vacation stories today also. It was predictable on this first day back from break.

“Were you telling them in Spanish?” I pressed. When he confirmed it, I made a sound, more than a little impressed. “Tell me.”

He went on to relay the highlights, in English, of the story he had told for a full five minutes in class. I was on the same vacation he was. The highlights I shared today were not the ones he chose to regale his classmates with.

It made me think about the various stories I’d heard today from colleagues and even students.

-Woke up at 5, went to Florida, got this necklace I’m wearing

You’ve heard, or seen stories that go like this. It was a rambling string of seemingly minor details without development or purpose. To be fair, this one was in the tiny topic notebook of a second grader. But we’ve all heard the story that is really just a list: We went to the Louvre, walked up the Champs Elysee, ate crepes, and took the bus from the Arc du Triomphe  to the Eiffel Tower. It was great.

Ohhh Kaayyy.

I can’t really live in that story. It reads more like a to do list in past tense.

What I asked the second grader was: what about this trip is important to you? When she indicated that it was the necklace, I asked the follow up. Why? Then her story started to come together. Suddenly they got up so early because they were excited to visit her mom’s parents in Florida. And the necklace was special because it’s a gift for her birthday, today, that her grandparents brought back from Israel. Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.

My son’s abbreviated version of his story did reveal what he felt was important. While I told of witnessing 2000 years worth of history in a single afternoon leaving me with a profound sense of awe, my son chose to highlight a pigeon attack on his father (complete with dramatization), the less than ideal bathing habits we inferred from smells in Paris, and, oh yeah, a few castles and things. He chose the things that left him laughing or scratching his head…and oh yeah, the castles. Although, when we got home yesterday he found short documentaries on some of the castles we’d visited and chose to watch them before bed. I know he’s interested in the history…

Which makes me realize that the stories we tell are also curated depending on our audience. For the kids in his Spanish class he chose to share anecdotes that would get a reaction. Apparently it paid off. They laughed at the pigeon and the B.O. For his English teacher, an avid Shakespeare fan, he related the story of our visit to the Globe Theater.

It was so nice! Really just great. Can’t believe how fast it went.

Some stories leave us with a vague impression, but nothing specific. Three times this storyteller gave me clues that the trip is worth hearing more about. I’m left wondering what was so terrific that made the time go so fast.

Since this was over lunch, a third colleague, who already knew she’d gone to Disney, asked where she stayed. Then more little tidbits started to trickle out.

Now that I think back on this story through the lens of audience, I’m realizing that there were several people in the teachers’ room when she shared this overall impression of her trip, not all of them her teammates or close confidants. Perhaps it was a matter of privacy– curating her story for those of us in the room.

But maybe since she’d been there and experienced the sights and sounds, she left them out assuming that we’d already know. I think sometimes our young writers (or those of us with a bit more experience) don’t write with a reader’s eye. As readers, we recognize when an author has painted a scene as if we’re there in it also. And we can be frustrated by (or simply uninterested in) stories where authors leave out key information. But we don’t always transfer that lens to our writing brain when the pen is in our hand.

Then there are the true storytellers. The ones who seem to breath stories. Forgive my paraphrased retelling of this one.

We just went to Six Flags for the day. [As though her story wasn’t as worthy]

We had the fast pass and we’d get off one roller coaster and jog back around to ride it again. And again. And again. Until actually my neck started to hurt a little from all the jostling.

Oh, on one of the coasters my friend had the fast pass in her pocket. She tried to hand it off to her mother who wasn’t riding, but the shoulder harness was already closed and she couldn’t reach.

Her mother said, “Just keep it. It will be fine.” [Here she gave a foreshadowing look.]

We were coming to the end, but still going pretty fast when…it flew out of her pocket!  [The pregnant pause here left me wondering whether they’d gone the rest of the day without roller coasters.]

My friend stuck her arm up, like this, and grabbed it. But she couldn’t hold on and bobbled it. It landed on the part of the car where you stand to get in and out. Meanwhile the ride was still moving.

I was sitting two rows behind and I saw it, but I was so surprised I couldn’t react. I could only shout, “That’s our fast pass!”

The person riding in front of me reached out and snatched it from outside the car.

Can you imagine what would have happened if it hit someone?!

Phew!

She had me worried. And relieved. I could see the critical moments as characters moved about trying to save the fast pass. And the reactions of all those who witnessed it.

This was the story of one time. I could see it, feel it, and I knew why to care about it.

She had another great story about painting closet doors.

Small moment stories about intense moments of action and conflict , or about adventures to far off places, can be tremendously powerful and effective but so can stories of otherwise mundane chores…when we storytell instead of summarizing or glossing over the details.

I learned a little bit about my colleagues today. I reflected a little bit on writing. And now I’m feeling the urge to get my vacation stories down as more than just a past tense to do list or highlights reel.

How was your vacation?

Opportunity Knocks…at the most unexpected times

Sometimes you’re minding your own business when opportunity jumps up and hits you over the head.

Or whispers in your ear.

Or quietly waves from across the room.

Do you remember The Sound of Music when Maria is sent away from the abbey to be nanny to motherless children? She consoles herself with the thought that “When one door closes, another opens.” Or maybe it was a window.

In any case, it seems that sometimes a window opens before another has closed. We can find ourselves momentarily caught in the cross-draft wondering which one to shut.

…………….

I received an email out of the blue. It was short: “This made me think of you.”

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Please understand, I’m happy in my career. I like my role and my school. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful principal. I feel like I’ve grown into my role, but not that I’ve grown out of it. While I feel very capable, there’s always room to grow. For me that’s a must have. I need to feel that I have room to stretch myself, to continue learning.

I have quiet, someday dreams for myself, but I haven’t been actively pursuing them. They were going to be for after…after my boys graduated, after I had time to pursue another certification, maybe after I tackled a PhD (another quiet, someday dream).

Then, out of the ether, came those six words.

I read them and my heart skipped several beats. My breath caught in my chest. My thoughts whirled.

All of my ‘grown up’ jobs have come this way. At the very beginning of my road to being a teacher I applied to be a substitute. The assistant principal called and asked me if I’d like to be their intern instead. He thought I’d be a good fit, and wouldn’t I like to know I’d be there every day? (Umm, yes.) From that middle school, I was invited to student teach at the high school in town. The assistant principal there brought me on board and connected me with her friend as my mentor. After I had my second son and took time away from teaching, I received a phone call from that mentor. Lorrie was the principal of another middle school now and she was looking for a reading teacher, would I be interested? (Again, yes I would.) Lorrie hired me. Two years into that role she encouraged me to pursue my reading degree. So I did. No matter that I had two small children, not yet in school themselves. And not long after Lorrie moved on to become principal of my current district, she reached out to me again. One of the elementary schools was looking for a reading consultant and she thought it might be a great fit for me. Would I like the contact information for that school? (Indubitably.) She hired (or recommended) me for all three of the schools where I’ve taught. She nudged me to become the literacy professional that I am.

So when this latest email arrived, I thought of Lorrie (recently named superintendent of my very first district). I thought of Nicole, my mentor. It’s not her this time, but another former colleague who reached out. I thought of the unexpected ways that the people we know and work alongside can shape our paths in ways we might not expect. Even long after our paths have diverged.

When I was young I felt adamantly that I never wanted to get something because of who I knew. At this point in my life I’ve come to realize that sometimes opportunities arise because of who knows us–our character, our principles, our work ethic and way of being in the world. And if someone knows who I am and feels that I  just might be the kind of someone who would be a good fit, well, maybe that’s an opportunity worth considering. It’s an opportunity earned because I’m me.

Just as I hadn’t known I was ready to return to teaching, to pursue a sixth year degree, or shift from the classroom to a coaching role, I hadn’t thought my quiet, someday dream would happen for years.

But here it is. Closer and more achievable than I’d imagined.

I feel honored to be thought of for this opportunity. While there are reasons not to dive head first through this door, I would always wonder, “what if?” if I didn’t at least push this window open a little wider and peek through. It may not lead anywhere. Or…

 

To all the colleagues and mentors who have shaped me, nudged me, framed my thinking or encouraged me to dip a toe into another pool–Lorrie, Nicole, Lynn, Karen, Theresa, Sarah, Joann, Lanny, Lydia, Lauren, Susan, Annie, Cathy, Kristen, Alison, Bianca and on–Thank you for thinking with me and of me.

#SOL Back in the Saddle…of Writing

“Wait, what day is it?!”

A week off from posting following the Slice of Life Challenge in March, and some wacky schedules at school…including yet another snow day…threw me for a loop. I found myself last Tuesday night with no post, no easy idea, and no energy.

Could I have drafted a post on Monday–the snow day?

Well, technically, yes. But (as I’ve posted before) something about posting less frequently seems to raise the stakes. If you’re only going to see one thing from me, I really want it to be good. To top that, sometime during the March Challenge I read a post about branding blogs. The post suggested that for maximum impact a blog should have a single, relatively narrow, focus. On reflection, many of the blogs I enjoy do have that kind of focus. Mine tends to be rather more eclectic–books, writing, coaching, cute kid moments at school, my own kids, etc. Again the pressure seemed to mount.

The result? No post.

I imagine the writing malaise might have lasted longer had I not received an invitation. For two years I’ve been working with the Connecticut Reading Association’s (CRA) conference committee. As a result of connections I’ve made through CRA and my (somewhat erratic and eclectic) blog, I was invited to write a monthly blog for one of the local CRA chapters. This past Saturday we met over coffee to brainstorm the vision for that blog. In an hour we’d branded the new venture and generated ideas for a year’s worth of posts. Granted, some of those may never come to print and others may overtake them, but the pump has been primed. In the past three days I’ve drafted three posts.

I’m back in the saddle, as it were. Refreshed by the break, reinvigorated with fresh purpose and a guaranteed audience, as well as responsible to a firm deadline for sharing a complete draft with my collaborator, I’m armed with three of the most significant weapons in the arsenal of a writer–audience, purpose & a deadline.

Granted, this new opportunity is more high stakes than a weekly post. Only once before have I had to submit my writing for approval (aside from casually writing for my college newspaper). And we’re hoping to build an audience that includes literacy professionals across Connecticut. We hope the blog will help teachers to feel connected to CRA throughout the year and not only for the annual conference. Like other blogs have done, we’re hoping to grow a digital PLN.

This leaves me thinking about what we ask of students with regard to writing. Are we ramping up the pressure or taking it down a notch through the formats and frequency with which we ask them to write? Do we do them a disservice by giving them only a single chance at a type of writing? (Hey kids, write your best speech, how-to, literary essay… Ready? Go!…Oh and you can only try it once. Good luck!) Do we leave room for voice and choice? Yet do we also help them beyond the dreaded blank page? Do we offer students a guaranteed or potential audience (beyond ourselves)? And is there a genuine purpose for their writing?

All of these factors were critical in returning me to the craft and practice of writing. How much more so must they be for young writers who may not (yet) feel like real writers? Or for whom writing is done only for someone else (the teacher)?

Let’s invite our writers in. Let’s give them purpose to fuel their (perhaps nascent) passion. Let’s figure out how to provide genuine audiences for that endorphin rush from feedback. Let’s give them enough opportunities to write that one (or six) bad drafts aren’t devastating, but just part of the process.

………………………..

If you’re interested, be on the lookout for monthly blogs about literacy at betruetoyourselflifeofliteracy.wordpress.com starting May 1 and on the first of every month.

*See? Now you know the plan and I’m responsible to you & my collaborator. Can’t back out now. <Yikes!>