Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reflections on Chapter 5 and Beyond of Reading in the Wild, #cyberPD

Preferences are something 6th graders are familiar with.

They love it.

They hate it.

They love and hate it at the same time. --SIGH--

Sometimes is seems there is no gray area with my precious 11 and 12 year olds. They live in a world of polarization. It can be an endearing quality about middle level students, but also a frustrating one.

As I read this chapter, I reflected on my experiences with students the last few years. Sometimes it seems that by 6th grade, they've tried it all. At least they think they have! Often my eager recommendations in the library are brushed off because, "They don't like those kinds of books." I dig for more, only to find that, in their mind anyway, they've tried it all. The door to reading is closed, because they've tried all the kinds of books possible and it "just hasn't worked." The spark hasn't been lit. The library doesn't hold anything for them. End of game.

Or not...

This chapter gave me some new weapons to fight that mindset that seems to infect middle schools, as well as some other wonderful ideas:

1. Don't be biased towards books that aren't my own preference (pg. 167). I don't have to love it to let them love it.

2. Discuss preferences as a class; foster a community that is okay with diversity of preference among peers.

3. Rereading is more than just okay-- it can be beneficial beyond words (pg. 175)! "Absorbing a treasured story into their skin" sounds like a beautiful idea to me.

4. Graphic Novels and English Language Learners together equals major learning (pg. 173). Of course! What a great solution! I need to brush up on this genre BIG TIME!

5. The ideas for including nonfiction everyday and exposing students more are priceless (pg. 180). Book talks, read-alouds, mentor texts, and previews-- wonderful ideas for making nonfiction come alive.

6. Evernote for conferrring is going to change how I teach. I've already set up my account, and I'm ready to go (pg. 183). After searching for years for a system that works for me, be it digital or paper, I think this is going to work!

7. The forty-book requirement just might make an appearance in my room this year (pg. 192).

Reading in the Wild cyberPD has been a breath of fresh air to me. I haven't been on time with all my blogs and comments (Life. -sigh- ), but I'll be back next year FOR SURE. Preparing for a new school year is one of my favorite parts of this job. CyberPD has been a large part of that prep this year. Reading, commenting, and blogging have pushed me beyond just skimming a text--I've really absorbed this one, and I have the author, hosts, and participants to thank for that experience.

Forgive me if I am commenting on your blogs for weeks to come as I catch up on my PD and prepare for a quickly approaching school year simultaneously. It has been a true pleasure to interact and connect with such amazing and inspiring like-minded educators while reading this fabulous book!

Thank you for welcoming this newbie with such open arms. See you next year, CyberPDers!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reflections on Chapters 3 and 4 of Reading in the Wild: Conferring From the Heart

I'm a little late posting today; it was last day of vacation. A travel day. I finished my reading on the car ride home, making little scribbles in the margins of my copy of Reading in the Wild.  I'm not sure the best teacher-decipher out there could make sense of my notes today, as my normally messy handwriting was made unreadable by the bumps and curves of the Missouri Ozarks.

I'm composing on my bed, shutting out the unpacked suitcases around me and the nest of hangers that serves as a convenient book prop to the right of my laptop. I'm blocking it all out to talk reading, much as I ask my 11 and 12 year olds to do everyday. They come to me as weary travelers, loaded with "unpacked baggage" and I do what so many teachers do: I say, with a bright morning smile, "Let's talk about your reading!"

And they think, I'm sure, "Is that all she cares about??" They would be wrong, of course, but I don't blame them. I come along with my iPad ready to record their reading information, and I'm sure I look and sound like someone who only cares what page they are on today.

I looked in the mirror a lot this week as I read, and I see some room to grow...

These chapters were amazing, full of ideas and gifts of inspiration that are highlighted and underlined in my book. This week, though, my take-away is much more simple. It is captured in the look on Donalyn's face on page 131. Turn there and look, please...

See what I mean?

It's that look that says, "I'm listening and you matter." In fact her whole body says it as she leans in, arms folded quietly to hear the child's words.

I stared at that picture for a long time, noticing every detail of the expression on her face and the face of sweet Ashley G. I don't know that student, but I know what that look means on a sixth grader. It means, "You noticed me! You're listening! I have your attention! What I say means something to you!"

I love that look on the faces of my students. I don't see it often enough to satisfy me.

This week the section "Conferring: What's the Point?" made all the difference to me. First, it gave me permission to slow down a little in the wildness of the school day and focus on the "bottom line." The bottom line (see page 89) of conferring is "building relationships with my students as readers, writers, and people (pg. 130)."

Turns out, I had gotten lost in checking boxes, making my way through lists, and glancing over the shoulders of students during my hurried conferring time, and I totally forgot my bottom line: CONNECT with them.

This line on page 131 struck me to the heart. Donalyn says,

"I decided that this was the primary goal of conferring for me: to make sure that I spoke with every child as often as possible and that no one disappeared."

Talk about the "power" of reading, of books, of conferring, of community!! Wow!

My reflection as I've read this week?  I'm going to do all I can to create moments like that in my room this year. I've also noted that my recording techniques need an overhaul to be prepared for keeping records of these moments.

As I pondered all this, one of my big fears moving forward was for the other kids. While I conference with one child, what if I inadvertently leave one kiddo alone too long, miss a need, and fail to step in on time to help?

However, as I read more, especially in Chapter 4 about making reading plans, things started to come together in my head. If I can prepare my students to truly be independent readers in my room the majority of the time (readers with plans and a community of reading helpers), then I don't have to worry about my students; they'll take care of each other.

And, really, isn't that what this book is all about? If I'm creating "wild readers" who will read beyond the classroom and sixth grade, shouldn't I be willing to allow them to work together to solve those reading problems together? After all, I go to my peers and PLN for advice...why wouldn't they?

So, that's where I'm at right now as I move to the next section of this book. My mind is swimming with all the ideas (book swaps and reading challenges and reading doors, oh my!), but my heart is centered on one notion:

Conferring from the heart. 

I've done enough conferring from my teacher brain, full of reading theory and responsibilities. It's time to be the lead reader of my room and confer from a heart that truly loves to read! And not just that, but from a heart that loves my students, each and every one.

I think I'll take a step towards creating wild readers if I can do that.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Reflections from a #cyberPD First-timer: Part 1 of "Reading in the Wild"

First, let me say what a pleasure it is to join this group of amazing teachers for #cyberPD this summer! I just joined the Twitter/blogging community early this year, and the opportunities to grow and reflect as an educator with like-minded individuals have literally blown me away. I've been challenged, encouraged, and pushed in ways I never imagined possible! This experience is proving to be no different.

As a third-year 6th grade teacher (6 years in 3rd grade prior to that), I am particularly interested in the personal reflections and stories that Donalyn (Can I call her that?!) shares. They remind me of my own students and allow me to very easily insert my own classroom into the narrative without any adjustments.

Before I began the book,  I admit I approached with skepticism, wondering how much would "really" apply to the unique and always-changing 6th grade mindset.

I also admit that I was wrong. Completely.

This book is real.

No sugar-coating here. I appreciate how she doesn't shy away from the issues we face everyday or pretend she doesn't have them herself. The tone of the book doesn't talk down to "the rest of us"; she's in the trenches, too,  and provides real and current solutions to the problems that exist in the reading classroom. I literally sighed with relief when I got to the "fake reader" section. Thank God I'm not the only one! And then the suggestions to help tackle issue-- priceless!

To be honest, it didn't take me long to be challenged in this book. The introduction (pg. xviii) states a truth that I have grappled with for years, but haven't had the courage to address:

"If my students were truly independent readers, why did they still need a teacher to orchestrate their reading lives?" 


I hate that.

But it's so, so true. I can choose to live with the blinders on and pretend that the habits we build in Room 606 will last forever, or I can be real with myself. Truthfully, most of my kiddos that move on to 7th grade do not have "wild reader" hearts that will last beyond the micro-reality that is my reading/language arts room. I know this.

So in response to these two chapters, I've decided to make a Top 10 List of my questions, my to-dos, my think-more-abouts, and my new understandings. I could make it a Top 100 very easily--there's that much-- but I'll spare you. Here goes!

1. A guiding truth: "...children who read the most will always outperform children who don't read much." (introduction, pg. xix) So, so true. I can't fail at this.

2. A question: How can I fit in more time for kids to share, converse, and socialize about books? 6th graders need this. They crave that sense of belonging described on page 9 and a reading community can provide that.

3. I am the "lead reader" in my room. I talk about my reading, but not enough.

4. Reading doesn't always fit in the school box. (i.e. Sarah's reading life on pg. 2)

5. I need to teach not just the skill of reading, but the skill of making time to read. (pg. 7) I deal with this every day in 6th grade--"There's just no time, Miss Collins!" Reading on the edge has to become a reality for all of us. We're going to make a list of places we were bored like her class did on page 14. It's a concrete way to make the point.

6. As a 1:1 Chromebook classroom, I loved the online reading response ideas (pg. 34). My kids are very into this right now.

7. I am working on my Reading Workshop "wish list" as outlined on pg. 38--what can I do to make the most of the time that I have everyday?

8. How can I provide more online reading opportunities? Maybe (pg. 51)

9. I want to start my year with a "favorite read aloud" sharing time (pg. 53). LOVE this idea.

10. I've looked for a way to keep my library organized and to perfect a check-in/check-out procedure. Perhaps is the answer I've been looking for! (pg. 82)

So, new #cyberPD friends, I'm sorry if my post missed the boat. I'm not exactly sure what a "reflection" should look like in the forum, but I did my best. I hope that this provides some insights into what I've been wondering about as I read, and I look forward to interacting with all of you during this coming month!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Slice of Life Tuesdays, April 8th: "One"

Slice of Life hosted at the
Join in and share a slice of your life.

My title is a fingers jumped on the keyboard, and this is what I found in the title bar of my blog where my "real" title was supposed to be. Its brevity attracted me, and this is what I came up with based on my little mishap.

One phrase aptly spoken
One smile given at just the right moment
One compliment at the crucial hour
One person that laughs with you to relieve the tension

One tweet that inspires
One blog that ignites an idea
One lesson that unfolds in unexpected ways
One student that understands
One moment that stands in time, remembered
One mistake that becomes a masterpiece

One can make a difference
One is powerful
One may be small but it's enough sometimes, because
One can change everything
One is important
One teacher
One life

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Slice of Life Tuesdays: April 1st-- "Surrounded by Friends"

Slice of Life hosted at the
Join in and share a slice of your life.

This was my first year of slicing through March and my first year to start a weekly post. I am so excited to be part of this community. Even though we just finished the month-long challenge yesterday, today feels different. It's the start of something new for me.

It has been a breath of fresh air to me to be a part of a group of dedicated professionals who care deeply about the things that also move me.

Writing. Thinking. Reading. Reflecting.

Lost arts in so much of society, but present here. Flourishing here, actually.

I'll get to the the slices of my life in the future, but right now, the slice that seems the most important to share is how I feel right now at my cluttered desk during my planning period on April 1st.

I feel surrounded by friends.

Some may call that crazy, but I think you probably understand, writing buddies. I love the connections I've made here and the community I've been invited into.

Here's to many more slices!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Slice of Life, March 31st -- "A Month of Deep Life"

“It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

 --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Deep life.

What is it?

Is it teaching? Learning? Being with family or friends? Is it dreaming, creating, working hard....?

Yes, yes, and yes. It's all these things, but at a new level....deep. So what does that mean? How do you live your life deeply?

Many people, I am sure, could wax long on this subject, but here's what I think. 

We all just did it for a month. 

Together we stopped. We listened. We looked closer at our jobs, our families, our students. We watched with wonder as spring crept in on little cat feet. We took walks that became journeys of the heart. We retold stories that made us laugh and weep. We relived our lives through our words.

I think that's what deep living is at its core. Deep living means not letting life pass you by in moments that cannot be counted, days that are not noticed. Writing is a cure for the shallowness that threatens to engulf us with each day that passes without memories. Writing keeps the years from slipping by without our fingers grasping the important stuff.

So, write, friends. I intend to. 

SOL has challenged me, scared me, and even threatened me, at times, if that sounds believable. But it's also inspired and awoken me. It's changed how I see things, and I don't want to go back to days that are forgotten quickly. It would be easier to give it up and not write again until next March, but I'd be missing the deep life that I discovered this month. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be part of this group. 

Thank you, SOL community, for welcoming me with your comments.

Thank you, students, for joining me.

Thank you, Webb City staff, for supporting and encouraging us all.

Thank you to the organizers and helpers who must have worked endless hours to make this month run smoothly for the rest of us.

Thank you so much for helping me find that deep life that is only found in the written word, penned from my own experiences and thoughts. I needed the little boost to find it again.

I think I'll keep this deep life. It's hard work, but so worth it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Slice of Life, March 30th-- "Dear Students..."

Dear Slicing Pod 2 Students,

Whether you decided to go for the 16 or 31 day Slice of Life goal, this letter will apply to you. I decided that one of my last posts will be directed towards you and to the things I've observed over the last month. It's long, but I hope you'll read it all. It's from my heart.

First, I know you had no idea what you were getting into when you signed on to this little adventure at the end of February. I know you didn't know, because I didn't know either. I had no idea what I was having us do. I had just found out about the challenge, and it sounded fun! My classes would LOVE to do this, I thought. I was right. You responded with enthusiasm that fueled my own excitement.

March 1st came and off we went! We even had some adults coming along with us; Dr. Zornes, Mrs. Williams, Mrs. O., Mrs. Booher, and Mrs. Hulstine all signed up to blog for the whole month. It was so much fun to feel like we had our own writing community all around us. Guest bloggers spiced things up, too!

We got off to a strong start.

Then, the first week passed, and the second week was gone. Slice of Life got hard. Really hard. Writer's block became a constant companion. A few students gave up, and I don't blame them. Between snow days, weekends, and Spring Break, we didn't even have each other to bounce ideas off of most days. Some days--a lot of days, maybe-- we wrote because we had to write. This wasn't exactly fun, but the rewards in the future made it worth it, we thought.

The third week was my hardest--your hardest, too, I think. Spring Break gave lots of new "out of the norm" ideas, but the encouragement from each other and the newness of the journey were just plain gone. Some days I thought really hard about giving in to the relaxation and laziness that comes with Spring Break, but it was you (and the chance at prizes from the teacher blog) that kept me writing and commenting. I felt like I was a blogging "fake." I just wasn't enjoying the discipline it took to keep up. I dreaded the moment that I had to stop exploring Florida and write. I wanted to be done. I felt like a terrible person. Can you relate?

It was a little easier the last week, because we were at school again. Something about school just makes you feel like writing is expected. Sort of. It was still a stretch to come up with things to write. While I was trying to motivate you, I was trying to motivate myself. I coined the phrase, "The Slice of Life ate my life." I dreamed of the day my computer could spend the night at school instead of following me home every night. I wish I could say that I loved every moment, but some days I just wanted to go to bed early, not post. To lie about that would make me sound like the "real writer" in the group, when all of you, I'm sure, had moments like me, and you're just as much "writers" as I am.

Then...all of a sudden, it's almost over.

One more post after this one for me. How is that possible? I made it?

I've thought a lot over the last few days about whether this is something I will do next year. Was it worth it for my kids, for me? I needed to get to the bottom of my feelings on the subject. I like to be honest, and this is how I really felt.

But after a lot of thought, I've come to a decision. I'm in. Next year, I will do it and so will some of my brave students who will follow in your footsteps.

Here's why:

1. When I look back over my 30 days of posts, even the ones that were stretches at the time, they make me proud. I teach writing, but I've never published a blog like this before, full of my own ideas. Even when I thought I was terrible, I was okay. I didn't have to be full of inspiration to write a good post. Maybe, for the first time, I realized that I don't have to be perfect to be a writer. It's a nice feeling.

2. I persevered, and so did you. We're all lying if we say each post was a joy to write. We wanted to give up at some point, all of us, but we didn't. It's amazing what we did through sheer willpower.

3. Not only did I notice what I wrote, I've noticed what you wrote. You are good. Really good. You may have thought, like me, a few days, that what you wrote was hardly worth reading, but you were wrong. Look again, please, at all your posts...the poems, the narratives, the opinions you crafted. Not just the ones you published, but the ones you kept hidden in your journals for only your eyes. Notice that your words are powerful, beautiful, amazing. Notice that you sound like a real writer. Notice that you ARE a real writer.

4. The SOL community we formed was priceless. I feel like we've run a race together and now we're at the finish line about to cross-- together. I am so glad that I know more about you through your writing and that we've completed the challenge with each other. Good and bad, we finished, and that's what matters.

So, students, a word of advice from your Comm Arts teacher: Don't be too quick to label this little adventure as "not worth it" or "not a big deal."

It IS a big deal.

You finished. You wrote. You grew. You were disciplined enough to do what many adults would have given up on weeks ago (or never had the courage to start to begin with).

As you prepare to move to Jr. High, remember this lesson. If you can do Slice of Life, you can do a lot of things you think you can't do. It just takes a made-up mind and dedication. It takes doing what you don't want to do when it's easy to give up. People say it a lot, but it's true. You can do anything you set your mind to do. You've proven that to many adults lately, and more importantly, I hope,  to yourself.

Do me a favor. Save your writing. You might not feel like it now, but those entries, those slices of your 6th grade life in March 2014 will be worth more than gold to you one day. Trust me on this.

The good news? It's almost time to celebrate our accomplishments. We have slices of pizza and cake and t-shirts and parties coming, but those won't be the biggest moments of joy you experience. I hope that moment comes to you tomorrow, when you pen your last entry.

I hope you savor the moment of accomplishment and pride wrapped up together.

You deserve to enjoy it. Congratulations!

                                                                                                          Your proud teacher,
                                                                                                                Miss Collins

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Slice of Life, March 29th-- "Tucker, the Snorting Golden Retriever"

I promised at the beginning of SOL to introduce both my dogs. Jackson found his way into a post quite early, but I've saved my second dog for later. Meet Tucker:

Tucker is my 9 year old Golden Retriever. When he was a puppy, we noticed something different about him. When he was really happy, he snorted. Sort of like when a cat is content, they purr-- well, Tucker snorts. It is seriously cute.

He snorts when you're petting him. He snorts when he wants you to pet him. Sometimes, when he's sitting across the room just looking at you, he'll snort, just to let you know that it's on his mind. It sounds like a snore and a pig snort combined.

He is a for-real retriever, not just in name. He is happiest when he is chasing something. He often wears himself out chasing his tennis balls and other dog toys. I have never in my life seen a dog more enchanted by flying objects. When we get out the bean bag toss game in the summer while we're grilling, he has to be in the house, because he will run and snatch bean bags from the air during the game. It's hard to know who's winning when the dog is running around with all the bean bags!

Tucker is very sweet and loving. He will snuggle with you all day if you let him (in between games of catch, of course). He likes to be scratched, and if you are not doing your job while he lays with you, he will "gently" remind you with a little swat from one of those big paws.

He likes to be with his family and is very loyal. Earlier this year, as I was putting my things in the car to go to school, Tucker followed me to the garage, climbed in the back seat, and got comfortable. He put up quite a fight when I told him he was not allowed to go to school with me!

His favorite place to be is outside. He will lay outside by himself for hours. He especially likes to eat grass or snow, whichever happens to be covering the ground. He loves the shade, even in the winter, probably because he has such a thick coat of fur.

His least favorite thing is to be brushed. You would think this might feel good when you're covered in hair like him, but he acts like he is being tortured. It takes two people to pin him down long enough to give his coat a good brush. When it's over, he snorts because he is so happy to be done!

So, that's Tucker, the incredible snorting Golden Retriever. I hope you enjoyed reading about what makes him special!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Slice of Life, March 28th-- "My Hour as a Middle School Nacho Lady"

PTO school fundraiser night
The cafeteria is full of parents, middle schoolers, teachers, and siblings.
The concession stand is my post,
My job for an hour.

Behind the rows of tables,
I man the nachos.
Chips, liquid cheese, and plastic bowls are my tools
To create Tex-Mex greatness.
$1.50 will buy you the chance to try my creation.

I listen for the words, yelled across the small, loud space--
"One nacho, please!"
I jump into action, pouring fresh cheese onto crunchy chips
Quickly pushing another masterpiece into the hands of a hungry buyer.

The room is full of buzzing--
Students are talking excitedly in pairs.
Parents are standing in small groups.
Tables are full of mini pizza parties of middle school kids.
The timer in the gym blares again.
The crowd roars from the stands.

The pace is fast, but the view is perfect.
For one hour, I am a nacho-creator and people-observer.
I see smiles, silliness, hugs, and humor from my corner of the room.
I see my school-- my community, together
Laughing and enjoying each other's company,
Working to achieve a common goal for the common good of our students.
And I am proud to be part of it.
Even if I'm just the nacho lady.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Slice of Life, March 27th -- "Avoiding Regret"

“The pain of discipline is far less than the pain of regret.”
Sarah Bombell, Olympic synchronized swimmer

This quote hung in my room for years; it is one of my all time favorites. It's been on my mind lately.

I think to understand these words-- to really understand them-- you must have experienced the pain of regret that comes from a lack of discipline. It is one of the most heartbreaking kinds of pain that I know.

Discipline is what causes you do what is necessary to achieve your goals. It is the hardest part of doing great things in life. Discipline isn't fun, but it is part of a well-lived life. It is what causes people to rise above "the norm" and accomplish amazing things.

Regret is the feeling that you could have done something, but knowing, in your heart, that you didn't have the follow-through to finish. It is one of the worst feelings I know. To feel as though I could have made a difference or reached a goal, but didn't have the mental discipline to keep going until it was done, is a feeling I avoid at all costs.

Regret can haunt you. There is no routine or discipline that is more painful than the disappointment of not achieving a dream. 

Goals, professional and personal, are not reached by wishful thinking or just positive attitudes; they are conquered in the trenches everyday, sometimes doing the same thing over and over again with little measurable gain. 

But, the work is always worth it in the end. When goals are worth the fight, they taste even sweeter in victory.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Slice of Life, March 26th -- "I Want to Hug You...and You...and YOU!!"

We are doing a project in one of my writing classes where the kids design games, write directions, and create the game boards and pieces. One of the "catches" is that it has to be based on a book they love. Sometimes this can cause a little trouble. Not all books make great games! So, sometimes we have to do a little brainstorming to come up with one that will fit the assignment.

Monday was "book choosing day," so I had everyone brainstorming some books they had read that were usable. Of course, a few kids knew immediately what they wanted to do and got started without my help. As I saw faces becoming perplexed, however, I mentioned that it doesn't have to be something they're read recently during their middle school years. It can even be a children's book from elementary school I explained.

Still, faces looked a little blank, so I told them I had some books they could look through to get ideas. In my storage closet, I have several books that were my standbys when I taught 3rd grade a few years ago. I taught that age for 6 years, so when I moved up a few levels, I felt like I was leaving friends behind when I couldn't use the same texts.

Of course, I know that some books can be used at any grade level, and I do utilize them on occasion, but not nearly as much as when I lived among 8 year olds. My 6th graders have read all my favorites, and so they sit, like old dolls on a shelf, in the dusty closet, only to be pulled out when I need them. It's been awhile since I was back there.

I took a few of the kids into the closet, propped the door, and started going through the titles with them. Before I knew what I was happening, I was hugging 3 or 4 of these treasures against me, like long-lost friends. The students looked at me strangely.

"I's just I haven't seen them in so long!" I gushed. Their faces looked amused now.

I lovingly pulled more books off the shelf, asking as I went, "Have you read about Alexander and his bad day? What about Edward Tulane? Surely you've read about Despereaux and Mrs. Frisby?" I realized I was listing off the character names, not the titles, unknowingly.

Those books, read so many years to so many students, were filled with my dear friends, the characters. Those characters had worked hand in hand with me to help many reluctant readers learn to appreciate the beauty of words on a page. Their stories were my stories.

I left the closet with my arms full, lugging books back into my room. I just couldn't leave them sitting in the dark for another moment. I needed them on my desk, near me.

After the kids left that day, I sat and flipped through the books, the familiar words, phrases, and pictures jumping out at me. I tried to make myself read them, but I was filled with an emptiness I couldn't identify. They stayed on my desk. I couldn't bear to take them home.

Today I realized what that weird feeling was, why I couldn't bring myself to turn to page one and begin.

I had no audience to experience them with.

To me, those books have always been shared with wide-eyed, young readers at my feet on the carpet. Often it was after recess and they were hot and sweaty, yet they crammed together to be nearer to the pictures. Without children listening to the voices and sound effects, the words on the page weren't worth reading, even silently to myself. I was surprised at myself.

I wonder if anyone else out there has felt this feeling before. Those precious books, for me, are reserved to be read during read-aloud time, with the funny voices, the sound effects, and a gusto that can only be achieved under special conditions.

It must be still, quiet, the air alive with a touch of magic.  If those circumstances cannot be arranged, I cannot read. Maybe that sounds picky, but I just can't bear it. The memories of past journeys through the books haunt me without my enthralled young audience.

You know what, though?

I think I still can arrange those circumstances with 11 and 12 year olds. I believe there is still wonder in the air, still imagination enough to appreciate the voices of the friends from my books. I think that together we, the characters and I, can create an atmosphere of quiet joy in my room that will lure kids in and capture them in the net of a good story.

I think there are still stories to be told and children to tell them to in my life.

I can't wait to begin.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slice of Life, March 25th-- "The Dystonia Slice of My Life"

This is a part of my life that is difficult to slice about, but it's a huge slice of my life. Although it's hard, I feel it's important. I also I know some of you will be able to relate to my story. That, too, makes it worth sharing.

A three and half years ago I was diagnosed with a disease that changed my life. Since then, it has become a constant "slice"-- a daily "slice" of who I am.

It's called dystonia. It's a neurological movement disorder. That means that a part of my brain sends messages to my muscles to move all the time, with or without my permission. The movements can be tremors, sharp jerks, or sustained muscle contractions in different directions. My kind of dystonia is called segmental dystonia, which means that it affects 2 or more parts of my body; for me, that is my shoulders, neck, jaw, and sometimes my right arm. It is a very rare disease, but not unknown. You may know someone with a kind of dystonia, or you may have never heard of it at all.

There is no cure, but there are treatments that have helped me tremendously. In addition to oral medications that help with symptoms, I receive injections of Botox (yes, BOTOX!) into my affected muscles by a neurologist. This weakens those deep muscles, so that the movements are not as strong and easier for me to control. It's been an amazing help to me. I get the shots every 3 months. Without these treatments, it would be impossible for me to work or live even close to a normal life.

While the treatments are helpful, there are challenges each and every day. I've had to make some adjustments that will be familiar to many of you with chronic disease.

There are no pain-free days in my life. It is a continuum, day to day, week to week, month to month. Some days it is like a constant background noise that is mostly ignorable, and other days it is so loud I can hardly think.

I am always fatigued. The disease is exhausting in itself, but combine that with the side effects of treatments, and I never have enough energy to do everything I wish I could. I feel guilty all the time because I can't keep up with what I want to accomplish.

It is unpredictable. I never really know what kind of day or week I'm going to have. It's hard to make plans because of this. It can be really disappointing when I think I can do something, and dystonia has different plans.

It requires so much rest to keep up with a normal schedule. Outside of school activities are often the first to go. Anything out of my "norm" can require days of recovery. I'm still learning to balance.

It is frustrating. I can't do what I used to be able to do. I'm limited. Boundaries are hard to adjust to, and I'm learning everyday how to live with them.

I've had to change some goals. As much as I hate it, some doors are closed because of dystonia. I am finding new ways to define success and feel accomplished.

I feel misunderstood a lot. What might come across as grouchy or out-of-sorts, is usually just pain overwhelming me. What appears as laziness, is actually me recovering so I can keep going the next day. I want to be known as me, not my disease, so I hide as much as I can. Sometimes this backfires and people make incorrect assumptions. I blame myself for this, but I haven't found a way to fix it. Yet.

As hard as the above are, I've found some positives I would never have known without dystonia and I'm thankful for that. For example...

People are kind. I have met more people who are understanding than the other way around. When I am up front and honest with people, they accept me for who I am. They want to understand and help. This says a lot about human nature.

I am strong. I didn't know it before, but I have a willpower of steel that keeps me going. I've learned to appreciate this about myself. I'm proud of how much I've overcome, even if I still have a long way to go.

A positive attitude and smile can make all the difference. I know sometimes I am annoyingly positive about negative situations...I can't help it; it's just how I've learned to cope with life. I can't sweat the small stuff anymore. I refuse to let the little things get me down. I take life a day at a time. The good days are too precious too waste with negativity.

Laughter is medicine. I love to laugh and make others laugh. It's part of how I get through each day. Sometimes I search for things to laugh at, even if it's myself, to bring some brightness to a hard day.

I'm not alone. Family, friends, and co-workers have all stepped up to help me get through some incredibly tough times. It sounds cliche, but I couldn't have made it without them. They know who they are!!

So, that's the dystonia "slice" of my life. I know there are many of you out there that can relate in some way or another. Whether it's you, or a friend, or a family member, most of us know someone dealing with a chronic disease of some kind. It's never easy, but together, it's bearable.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Slice of Life, March 24th-- "My Life in India Through the Lens of Food"

The year after I graduated from college, I decided I wanted to travel. I lived for one year overseas: 4 months in Mexico City and 4 months in New Delhi. I spent the year working with dedicated people and teaching at a small college. What I thought was a selfless adventure, turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I took away much more than I gave, that's for sure!

Here are a few of my memories from India through the lens of food. I took the pictures at a small grocery store in Orlanda last week. I left with tears in my eyes. The memories flooded me as I walked the tight aisles.

Here is the store:

Outside of the small college I lived and worked at was a small vegetable stand. They spread their offerings on a blanket on the ground each day. There were always things I'd never seen before, like this vegetable-- an eggplant, but so small! These veggies were cooked into curries that we ate twice a day with rice.

Another daily tradition was tea. If I could transport one tradition from India home, it would be tea time. In India it's not just a drink; it's a way of socializing. You stop everyday in the mid-afternoon for a cup, sweetened with milk and sugar. If you were at someone's home, you never left without having a drink together. It was a sign of friendship and hospitality. It opened the door to conversation. I miss it so much.

If you were at someone's house, you were often offered something like this, a sweet cookie or "biscuit" to eat with your tea.

Sometimes we ate out at a little restaurant near the college. It was across the street. We always ordered the same thing: paneer (cubes of cheese that you must try someday), dal (a lentil soup that is exquisite), and naan (flat bread that is cooked on the inside wall of a clay oven). Here are pictures of the make-at-home versions from the store:

When it was time to leave, my friends had a party to say goodbye. They insisted that I try home-cooked, South Indian food. They were from the South, and it was their way of sharing their culture with me. I have craved it ever since. In America, most Indian restaurants serve Northern Indian food--wonderful, trust me--but if you ever find one that serves South Indian cuisine, it is a special place! This is a traditional South Indian breakfast food, idli. It is made from rice flour, is about the size of the inside of your palm, and is the epitome of fluffy, white deliciousness.

Chocolate isn't something you run into a lot in India, or at least I didn't. This is the picture of the most popular brand, Cadbury. When I was about 2 months into the trip, I made an ill-fated trip to a little convenience store to pick up a few candy bars to use as treats for a game I was going to play with the students in class. I bought 3 bars. I hadn't had chocolate in 2 months. I ate all three in a row in minutes and hid the trash. No one knew the difference. The game was fine without prizes, but, needless to say, I was the one that learned a lesson that day. I've never done that again...

One of my favorite memories is of the students eating the green bean-looking items below. Be careful! They're not green beans, but the hottest chilies you'll ever run across. The kids would eat them plain, just like you see here, dipped in some salt. I vowed to try it before I left for home, but I chickened out!

I have a thousand pictures of the people and places I remember so well, but, truly, some of my most vivid memories are unlocked through the portal of food. The spices, the textures, and the smells bring back my moments there in the most amazing detail.

The store we visited last week made me smile and remember. It's like a mini-trip back to my little niche in India. I hope you enjoyed our visit!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Slice of Life, March 23rd-- "For It's the Last Day of Spring Break"

I should...
I should finish unpacking.
I should go to the grocery store.
I should straighten up the kitchen.
I should tackle "the list."

But I can't.
You see,
For it's the last day of Spring Break.

Please notice that it's sunny outside--maybe chilly, but sunny.
The Sunday paper is waiting.
The coffee is still brewing.
The daffodils have bloomed in the front yard.
The birds have returned from the south--I hear their jubilant voices.
I have yet to finish "the list" here in Spring Break.

There are still some moments left for me to enjoy here.
Some quiet, precious, tranquil moments.
Moments that can only be lived now, not later.

Be still, my mind.
Monday will come.
The list will get done.
The alarm will go off.
The week will begin.
All will be well.

But this moment?
It cannot be replaced, relived, redone.
It begs to be lived in its silence and full, thoughtful detail.
It speaks to me, "Don't move too fast. I am leaving soon."
It reminds me that its simplicity is its gift to me.

And so, you see, I should...
But I can't.
For it's the last day of Spring Break.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Slice of Life, March 22nd-- "My First Day of Teaching, Remembered..."

Our first day of teaching...a day we all remember, I'm sure. For me it was 8 years ago, but I can see every moment in high-definition detail. Allow me to recount a few of the highlights for your amusement.

6:00 a.m.-- I'm sitting in my '96 Honda Accord in the parking lot of the school. I'm the only one there, obviously. School doesn't start until 7:50, but I can't sleep because I'm so paranoid I'll OVERsleep and miss the first day. Plus, the first day of school nightmares are killing me. To escape, I just get up and go. At this particular moment, I've got my head against the steering wheel breathing deeply in the dark, sick to my stomach, with one thought rolling through my mind on repeat, "How did I talk this principal into believing I could actually TEACH?! I don't even know if I can teach!" I was so terrified by the thought of having my own classroom of real kids that I could hardly move. Needless to say, I did...

7:30 a.m.-- The parents and students start rolling in for the first day of school pictures with the new third grade teacher. The impostor complex kicks in again; I feel like they can all tell I have no idea what I'm doing. My panic is documented in pictures that I still have. The look on my face is priceless.

8:30 a.m. -- I'm reading them a book about first day jitters, and it's going well! We're building community! A victory! Then someone opens the door...another parent wanting one more picture. The momentum breaks. The doubt returns. I suppress a real urge to hide.

11:10 a.m. -- Someone from the office comes in to ask if we're going to come to lunch. We're 20 minutes late. I've been so worried about everything else that didn't realize my clock was running slow, and the time for lunch had come and gone. It's a nightmare come true. We make it just in time before the next shift of kids.

11:25 a.m. -- I shove food into my mouth behind my desk as the kids sit for a few moments after their lunch. It's all I've got time for. I feel like I'm going to throw up.

1:30ish p.m. -- A child beats me to it, and throws up on his desk. The cleaning staff is busy, so I repair the damage on my own; the gagging 8 year-olds wait on me in the hallway. I want to go home.

2:50 p.m. -- I put on a brave face, and go out to car pick-up line to wave goodbye to all my kids. I feel like I've lived a whole week in 8 hours. I'm exhausted, but I know I'm in the right place when I realize I can't wait to try again the next day. For the first time ever, I'm a real teacher and it feels amazing.

It was a first day for the books, that's for sure. In the end, I had a wonderful year despite some more growing getting the whole class lost in downtown Indianapolis on my first field trip.


Live and learn, right?

Truthfully, I wouldn't change a thing about that day. It's brought a lot of smiles to my face and the faces of others over the years. I like to tell new teachers in my building that they can't beat my first day flop! They usually feel better about their "terrible" first day after I tell them the above story.

After all, we can't be perfect all the time, but it doesn't mean we're not supposed to be here. It's just part of the journey.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Slice of Life, March 21st-- "Home"

I overheard a woman this morning talking to a co-worker. She lives and works in the part of Florida I vacationed in for a week. On my first day there, I wrote a post about how just looking at a palm tree made me over-the-moon excited and happy. This morning, as I moped around getting ready to leave the resort, this is what I heard:

"I'm getting ready to take some vacation time," said the lady, excitement in her voice.

"So where do you want to go?" said her friend.

"Anywhere without a palm tree!" she replied.

They laughed together.

I digested.

My oasis was the very place she wanted to escape from. It's all about perspective, isn't it? I wonder if she'd be happy visiting my area of the country. It's not Florida, but, then again, we don't have palm trees either!

I've tried to think about that today as I've traveled home. Maybe my little town isn't a vacation spot on the the map for anyone, but, you know what?

It's a pretty special place, too, and I'm glad to be here.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Slice of Life, March 20th -- "Tapas, anyone?"

I've tried to write 3 posts tonight and none of them are working out.

Have you been there, friends?

I've decided that instead of working hard to come up with a hearty "main course" slice, I'd just offer you some "tapas"--a Spanish tradition of "small plates" of food. Instead of a long post with all my thoughts on one subject, I'll give you a small sample of some of the many thoughts that are swirling around my mind tonight.

Thought 1: Today is the International Day of Happiness, created by the United Nations in 2012. It coincides with the first day of Spring, which I think can't be an accident! I've been pondering all day about what it is exactly that makes one person happy over another person. I've decided that, when it all boils down, happiness is a choice. As cliche as it is, I choose whether a circumstance is going to steal my joy and my smile or if it is going to be just a bump in the road. I've also thought about how happiness does not have to be a polar opposite of sadness; I think in life we experience all and joy combined with sadness and difficulties that together create the perfect mixture to produce happiness.

Thought 2: I've been reading some great books in my independent time. I am a reader of many books at once, so here's a few from my current stack:
       The Monuments Men: The book surprised me with the nonfiction narrative full of fascinating facts about the rescue of art during WWII. I love it, but in small doses. Sometimes my brain just isn't ready to absorb it all, and I don't want to miss anything! I read this book a chapter at a time, slowly.
       The Book Thief: It was not a book that instantly grabbed me, but after about a third of the way through, I was hooked. It is a glimpse into the life of a young lady during the start of WWII in Germany. I've never read a book like it before, and I'm mesmerized by the author's style.
      Various German Guidebooks: I'm planning a trip to Germany next summer, so I'm reading up on places to visit and things to do. I love planning trips almost as much as taking them, so it's a lot of fun. I read these books when I feel like escaping for a few minutes. Perhaps the trip subconsciously attracted me to the above books, too! I'm noticing a theme now that I'm writing it all down.

Thought 3: Spring Break is over. I'm flying home in the morning. I have the normal mixed feelings. I'm so sad to leave vacation and exploration behind. It's been a wonderful break from the normal routine. I've had a lot of firsts on this trip to Florida: first trip to the Everglades, first airboat ride, first time to hold a baby alligator. On the other hand, I'm excited to get going at school. The end of the year always goes so fast, and it's full of so many traditions and fun times. Plus, I miss my students!

So, that's my list, my "tapas" for you. Now, if only we could all fit around a table and have a nice, long conversation about my ideas and yours.

I have a feeling THAT would be something to write about!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Slice of Life, March 19th-- "This Moment Brought to You Because of Winn Dixie"

I wrote a few days ago about my first encounter with the real Winn Dixie grocery store. It was an exciting moment which led me to add a new item to my Spring Break Bucket List: shop at a Winn Dixie before going home.

So, in my pursuit of that goal, I dragged the family to the supermarket this afternoon for a quick trip through the store for a couple of things. Of course, a short list always grows once inside the store, and it wasn't much time before our arms were loaded with mid-vacation essentials: the pineapple I was craving, raisin bran, diet soda, granola bars, a loaf of bread, and several other must-haves.

We met at the front of the store after our foraging, carefully balancing our food finds. We were attracted to the self-checkout by the allure of no lines and a quick exit. Hurrying, the three of us pounced on the open checkout, beeping our items through the scanner with gusto.

Things started going downhill fast.

The woman in the machine started talking to us. "Please place your item in the bagging area," she politely, but firmly said. We tried again. Our definition of the bagging area was clearly misguided. The woman repeated herself, louder this time and more authoritatively.

I then realized an even more serious error. We didn't have a Winn Dixie savings card! We were being charged the full price for every item we were purchasing!

The tension dialed up a notch as I went in search of an employee to help us sign up for a card.

When I found him, I asked if we could please get a Winn Dixie card. He took in the situation, looked me up and down, and asked nicely if we were visiting from out of state. I would like to go back to the store and ask him how he knew on his first guess, even if the answer would hurt my feelings. He thoughtfully offered to use the store card to help us, rather than having us sign up. Smart man.

I turned with him to walk back to our check-out area.

By the time we had returned, the polite woman's monotone voice was echoing through the whole store, repeating infraction after infraction that we had somehow committed in 3 short minutes. The groceries were in the wrong place, the produce wasn't being weighed right....every sentence that poor machine had been programmed to say was being yelled all at once. At us!

I had a moment where I wasn't sure what to do. Put my hands up like a criminal? Drop everything and exit the store in defeat? Melt into the linoleum in embarrassment? What HAD we done to create such a moment of mayhem? It felt as if the whole store was looking at us. Actually, I think they were.

There we were, the tourists, who couldn't even figure out how to use the self-checkout at the local Winn Dixie.

Vacation humiliation.

Thankfully, the kind young man rescued us. He quickly typed in super-secret codes while machine-lady continued to chastise all of us.

She stopped.

We paid.

He saved us.

We gathered our badly-packed bags and ducked out of the store. It was finally over.

Bucket list: CHECK.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Slice of Life, March 18th-- "My Thoughts So Far"

Here are a few of my musings about SOL so far...

1. It's hard. Really, really hard. Harder than I ever thought.

2. It's rewarding. So much more rewarding than I imagined writing could be.

3. It's become part of my life in a way that I didn't expect. I look at life differently, constantly asking the question, "Is there a slice in that moment?"

4. It's become part of my family's life. "Are you going to blog about that?" sighed a family member today when something funny happened. I laughed when I realized this solo event has turned out to be a family affair.

5. It's changed my students. I have seen growth, perseverance, and dedication from my 6th graders that goes beyond wanted a slice of pizza or a t-shirt. They are doing this for their own reasons: to prove it to themselves or someone else, to express their minds, to publish to a global audience, to stretch as writers. It's an amazing thing to watch.

6. I am so proud of what I've written. When I look back over 18 days of blogs, I see my own growth and thoughts compiled in the most unique way.

7. I am going to miss it so much. The 13 days left in March feel like an eternity and a nano-second all wrapped up into one feeling. Maybe some SOL vets can speak to this feeling and what you do on April 1st!!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Slice of Life, March 17th-- "The Taste of Anticipation"

“Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.” 

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I love to anticipate. 

In fact, anticipation is one of my favorite things about teaching. In a job that follows a schedule so closely and so similarly each year, looking forward is a pleasure. I look forward to all parts of my year: the summers and the holidays, of course, but also the first school supplies that show up on the shelf in July, the first day of school, decorating the room, the parties. 

I was almost tarred and feathered for my anticipation of snow days this year. What can I say? It's another thing to anticipate that just makes me happy.

Last Friday about 6 minutes before Spring Break started a co-worker looked at me and said, "What other job lets you have this feeling several times a year?" We just grinned at each other. Kindred "anticipating" spirits. 

Naturally, to everything in life there is a balance that is necessary. You can't live in the future and be unhappy in the present. But I have found that looking forward to the natural flow of life--the traditions, the birthdays, the holidays, and the everyday moments that only come once or twice a year--makes life fun. 

I heard a study that found that planning a vacation made people happier than actually going on one! I think that might be taking it a little far, but the point is well made.

Anticipating is underrated! What are you looking forward to these days?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Slice of Life, March 16th--"The Power of a Palm Tree"

Yesterday I took a "selfie" with a palm tree.

For real.

And, yes, there is a reason you're not looking at it below. First, it is a really bad idea, taking a picture with a tree. Second, I look supremely happy-- not the "cool" happy, more like the "I just won the lottery and my own private island all at once" happy. The smile isn't cute, it's scary.

It was what really happened, though, when we pulled over at a gas station on our trip to the coast and I saw the first palm tree of the trip. No matter that it was at a GAS STATION. It was just so excited to see signs of vacation, I'm pretty sure I skipped over, hugged the tree, and took the dumbest picture known to man.

This brings me to my title: The Power of a Palm Tree. It may have been a bad idea to document the moment with a camera, but the moment itself was pretty special. That tree was a symbol to me.

According to a "symbol" is...

"something used for or regarded as representing something else; a material object representing 
something, often something immaterial; emblem, token, or sign"

In other words, that wasn't just a tree to me. It was vacation, relaxation, fun, joy, getting-away, and warmth all rolled into one bark-covered, woody plant. 

Bless it's little heart. It got the full brunt of my spring-break-itis when I spotted it yesterday afternoon. I hope, when it's your spring break week, that you find something symbolic like I did that reignites you, refuels you, and gives you the much-needed break that we all--students and teachers--need at this time of year.

I hope you find your palm tree.

(And don't bother one is ever seeing that picture.)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Slice of Life, March 15th--"Stop!! A Real-Life Winn Dixie!" took me all of about 35 seconds in Florida to find my first blog topic. We were driving to the hotel from the airport last night and all of a sudden I saw it. The place that had lived only in my imagination materialized right before my eyes!

"Stop!" I screamed, "It's a Winn Dixie store!"

My travel crew looked at me like I'd grown a second head. "You know," I explained, "like a Winn Dixie...from the book..." The looks of confusion turned to concern. Perhaps I was dehydrated or jet-lagged from the 1.75 hour flight, they wondered.

I tried to explain again about how the book was written by one of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo, and that I didn't even know that the stores really existed, etc, etc., but I got nowhere with my audience. I did get a picture, though, for all my book-loving friends and students.

They DO exist!!!
For those of you from Florida reading this post, try not to laugh too hard at me. It's just that I've read the amazing and wonderful book Because of Winn-Dixie no less than a million times to my kiddos (We even read the readers' theater just last week!), and I never fail to DIE laughing at the supermarket scene where the precious dog receives a name and a best friend. I have watched the scene in my mind so many times, and when I saw the store--the real-life store--I felt like I'd been plunked out of reality into my imagination come alive.

If you've never read the book, oh my word, you must. In fact, if you've never read her other books, The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, then put them on your to-read list. They have been friends of mine for years. You will not be disappointed. If possible, read them out loud to children. It's the only way to fully enjoy them.

And trust me, before I leave Florida, I will have shopped in a Winn Dixie, too! The produce aisle has my name on it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Slice of Life, March 14th-- "Packing...Oh the Agony!"

I love to pack. I hate to pack. I love to pack. I hate...

Well, you get the point. Packing is an emotional roller coaster for me.

I have an obvious issue that surfaces anytime it is time to pack to go somewhere on a trip. This time it's a Spring Break trip to Florida to watch the Cardinals at their Spring Training camp with my family.

I am totally pumped to get on the road today to the airport and fly into Orlando tonight. But the image of me the last few days at home trying to get my act together has been less than picturesque.

This is my routine. It changes a little with each trip, but this is the general picture:

First, I start with a list.
Then I make another list.
Then I throw the other two lists away and just start throwing stuff in the suitcase.
Then I take it all back out and try to organize it.
Then I realize I've packed too much warm attire and I need to start over and think "beach" as I'm packing.
I search for sandals.
I try to find an umbrella.
I make a mess.
I destroy my closet.
I weigh my suitcase.
I go to the store to buy things I can't find/don't have/don't know if I might need.
I start over.
I panic.

Finally, I am ready to leave. I actually finished this morning. Typically, my suitcase weighs in right at the limit. This time it is 39.2 pounds, just under the limit of 40.


I know it's insane. I don't even know what's in the suitcase honestly. Don't know, don't care. As long as I have my driver's license and ticket, I'm golden. That's what 3 days of stressful packing does to me.

Next stop: sunny Florida! Have a wonderful Spring Break!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Slice of Life, March 13th -- "A Pile of Wishes"

I wish...
    for honesty.
    for kindness.
    for hope.
    for creativity.
    for inspiration.
    to have an impact.
    to make a difference.
    to see my students succeed.

I wish...
    to keep my promises to myself and others.
    for happiness.
    for joy.
    for simple pleasures.
    for spontaneous smiles.
    to amaze others.
    to be amazed every single day.

I wish...
    to teach with love.
    to make every moment count.
    for simplicity in life.
    for deep friendship.
    to be a daring dreamer.
    to live life fully.
    to have no regrets.

I wish, most of all, to be an everyday wisher.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Slice of Life, March 12th -- "The Day I Did Something I Didn't Think I Could Do"

This is the story of my first half-marathon. It was one of the most memorable, special days of my life. It was wonderful in a million ways, but mostly because I never thought I'd be able to do it.

Let me back up. I've never been a runner. A few years ago, I was facing a particularly difficult challenge in my life. The idea of running hit me like a lightning bolt. It seemed brilliant, except for the fact that I was the one that could barely complete a mile for volleyball tryouts in 8th grade. I hated running! When I told my family I wanted to run my first 5k, my mom told me later that she would have been less surprised if I had told her I quit my job to become a brain surgeon. They supported me, but secretly thought I was insane.

A few months went on...I ran my first few blocks, then my first mile, followed by my first few 5ks. Then I started training with a few of my best friends for my next challenge: the half-marathon. While each milestone and success felt important, this was the big one. This was what I was working for.

I got up early on Saturdays and Sundays for my long training runs--up to 12 miles. During the week, I ran 3 or 4 nights a week. My times weren't great, but I was doing it!

Suddenly, the day was here. November 11th. I couldn't sleep the night before. I felt sick all morning. I was shaking. Here is a picture of me with my friends before the race:

It was in the single digits that morning...brrrr!!!
I had on my brave smile there, because the truth was, I didn't believe I'd ever finish.

I knew I'd trained hard and I knew I was ready, but doubt sunk in like a heavy blanket. When we started running, my emotions took over and I felt tears sting my eyes: tears of pride, fear, doubt, excitement, all mixed together in one single moment.

The race is mostly a blur. It took us over 2 hours to finish 13.1 miles. I remember at the 7 mile mark, feeling strong, and thinking, "Oh no, I've trained for this moment for so long, and it's going too fast! It's going to be over too soon!" I was having so much fun living my dream. Everything I had feared evaporated as we ran.

During the last mile, I felt the pain of the race start to wear on me, but I kept going. Over the last few hours, as we ran, my friends and I had stuck together but spread out a little, too. I found myself running beside an older gentleman who had run many races. He was someone who was okay with talking and okay with being silent. That was perfect for me, because I was trying to take in every moment of my last mile.

I finally turned to him as we got closer to the last bend and said, "You know, this is the first thing I've done, I think, that I really didn't believe I could do."

He looked at me, wisely quiet as I spoke my heart.

I continued, "I, I knew I had the skills to do that. My Masters Degree, I knew it would take time and effort, but never once thought I couldn't do it. Teaching, my job, I felt like it might be a challenge sometimes, but I would figure out a way to make a success of it..."

He continued to run beside me, listening.

"But this.....running a half-marathon. This was just a joke a few months ago."

He glanced at me quickly, then looked ahead again, still quiet.

"I trained, and I worked hard, and I talked about it, but....I never really believed I'd be here finishing 13.1 miles..." My voice trailed off.

Finally, he spoke, "That's beautiful."

It was my turn to look at him, tears and sweat burning my eyes.

"That's amazing, because here you are. You did it." His voice was quiet and calm.

We made eye contact again, both of us realizing what an incredible moment that was for me. I had done the impossible. No, it wasn't really impossible, but my mind had said it was impossible, and there's not much difference, is there?

He finished a few blocks ahead of me, the final sprint separating us. Guess who was at the finish line, though, to give me a big hug before he headed on to his own family?  You guessed it.

Here is the picture he took of me with my medal and my friends at the end of the race:

I was so proud. I don't think I've ever been more surprised at what I was able to do with just hard work and will power.

My next goal? That's right--a marathon! I was training about a year and a half ago for my first one in Chicago, when I injured my foot. I haven't run since then. I found out at Christmas this year that I need to have surgery on one of my feet before I can run again. When I'm ready to go, though, watch out! It may seem unconquerable, but here I come!

After all, I know better now. I don't listen to that voice of doubt in my own head, because it turns out I can prove it wrong.

And you better believe I plan to.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Slice of Life, March 11th--"In Defense of Grammar"

I know this statement has the potential to make me unpopular, but the honest truth is I love grammar. I feel like I have to defend myself in this quite often because many people do not feel the same way. Whether it's students, other educators, or just the general public, the consensus is, most often, that grammar stinks.

When I ask people what they hate so much about it, the most common answer I get is that it just "doesn't make sense." I respect that people are entitled to their opinion, but truthfully, grammar does make sense. Yes, there are the "exceptions" that come up every once in awhile, but every subject has that!

I love grammar for many reasons. Allow me to elaborate.

First, it brings order to (what can be) the confusing chaos of written communication. It is the method by which we make sense to each other. It enables us to say what we mean in precisely the way that we mean it.

Second, knowledge of grammar is empowering. I have seen so many children blossom in their writing as they begin to understand why they have received red marks in the past on their writing or have gotten comments that something was not "a complete sentence." It's not because they are bad writers, but because the knowledge of grammar was held by only the teacher. As they gain more knowledge about language, they can craft sentences that are not just grammatically correct, but they also feel confident sharing their work with others.

Third, knowledge of grammar enables creativity with language. Just as an artist must have a rudimentary knowledge of paint and brushstrokes before they can create an abstract, original piece of work, so a writer must understand the construction of sentences before they can experiment knowledgeably with words. I had an art history professor in college that explained why work that looked like splattered paint could hang in a gallery next to the Mona Lisa. Just because a piece of art does not "look" as hard or as "thought-out" as the one hanging next to it, she said, does not demean or lower its value as art. Art is defined by the process many times, not the complexity of the product. Sometimes a less complicated, more rudimentary piece of art "says" more in its simplicity than a grand painting 12 feet tall.  In the same way, writing should be judged by the process and effect on the audience, not always the final product. Knowledge of grammar allows a poet who writes 40 well-crafted, thoughtfully-placed words to gain the same acclaim as the writer of a classic novel that is 400 pages long.

Last, it creates a common language in which we can communicate as writers about our writing. I love that my students can discuss why a prepositional phrase would make sense in one spot of their sentence over another spot. I enjoy hearing them defend their choices about why they are using several simple sentences over a compound sentence. Maybe they don't NEED to know the names of the different types, but why would I withhold that information when it is so simple to impart? Why wouldn't I teach them the full expanse and variety that is available to them within the English language when it is within my power to do so?

So, please, teachers, don't let the reason you skip grammar be because you feel it's not important or because it stifles students' creativity in writing. I find that it does the opposite. As they learn more about the English language, they begin to take ownership of their own writing. It becomes an art that they craft using creative word choice, sentences structure, and organization. It allows the beauty of language to flow from students in bold, new ways. It creates original, knowledgeable writers.

To the students, learn it. You don't have to love it, but learn it! It will become your friend in the most unexpected of circumstances and help you in ways you cannot anticipate. Grammar equals power. Everyone has something to say; it's how you say it that makes the difference in whether you are heard.

Thanks for listening, slice of life community. I've needed to say that for a long time, and it feels good to do so.