Silliness and Similes

“Welcome to the Simile Challenge! You are competing against one another to create up to five similes. The cards in my hand have words and phrases that you’ll use to build your similes. The card you choose will give you the A part of your simile. Your job, is to come up with a word or phrase to fill the B part (Thank you, Nancie Atwell, for this comparison building language!).”

As I’m describing today’s challenge activity, I look out on a captive audience. They are hanging on every. single. word. This never happens, I think, and then continue.

“Use your notes from yesterday to remind you of how you can structure your comparisons. Remember that the B part of the simile tells your reader how you feel about the A part. Your similes need to be creative, easy to understand, of course, legible!”

I survey the group again. Still captive. Pencils at the ready. They are starting to squirm. I hear a little “you’re goin’ down” trash talk in one corner and can’t help but smirk. I have one last piece of information to share before it’s game on.

“There are two final pieces of information that you MUST know. One, you cannot draw your card to begin building your next simile until you’ve finished writing the entire line. Two, when you finish, you have to find where I am in the room, return your card to me, and draw your next card to continue. You’ll have ten minutes to create your similes. It’s not a race to finish, but you will be up and moving. Are you ready?”

A resounding, “YES!” came back to me. Not a single question. They were ready.

I walked around the room and had each student draw his or her first card, face down. When the final card was drawn, I yelled, “Your time starts NOW!”

And they were off.

Eighteen kids completely engaged in not just writing similes, but trying to one up their friends and table mates. Light trash talk peppered the room. Giggles were paired with sighs of frustration at their first draw, but not a single student complained or refused to participate.

The first “I’m done with my first one!” shout came from across the room, and I was off and moving. I’d decided when I put this activity together that I was really going to keep them moving, this meant that I would be moving. A lot.

When I heard that proclamation and saw who was coming my way, I pivoted and ran in the opposite direction.

“Hey, get back here!”

“You have to get to me, remember?! Better get moving!”

They were chasing me. For cards with words on them. To create similes.

We laughed. I raced around the room, showing off what remains of my fakes and spin moves left over from years of playing and coaching basketball. They started to work together to trap me so I couldn’t slip away.

They were actively engaged in not just thinking about similes, but in strategizing how to catch me, how to catch the words. It was glorious.

“Where did she go?” one of my students wondered aloud. I’m little, so I blend, and today I was fast too, so finding me in a room full of kids whose height eclipsed mine years ago was an extra challenge. I loved every minute of it.

When the timer went off, my hair was a mess, some of the kids were breathing heavily, all of us had laughed, and I had a room full of kids who played with a writing technique without a single complaint. It was hard work, both because of the physical need to move quickly to chase down an aging shooting guard, long past her college days, and because they were engaged in the deep, meaningful work of creating comparisons that communicate a clear and thoughtful message.

It was messy. It was silly. It was perfect.

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Shaking Up Seating

My first class of sophomores began to file into my classroom. I held my breath, not sure how they’d react to the new seating arrangement, even though they knew it was coming.

“Find your name on a table card. That’s your new seat,” I said feigning confidence that I was ready to deal with any potential fallout. This crew is a picky one. They don’t always respond well to change, and if the change feels like too much to them, revolt is always an option. I knew that even though I’d prepared for that potential, I wasn’t really prepared to handle it. I’ve been fighting off illness since the flu began its sweep through the grade level last week.

There were some grumbles. Some were in shock that the requests they made during last week’s Friday check-in were actually honored.

“She actually listened!” I heard one of the girls exclaim.

One student, however, was really upset. He turned away from his new table, wanting nothing to do with his new table mates. I made a mental note to have a chat with him, trying to figure out how to engage him before he shut down completely.

The bell rang. Our signal to be seated, silent, and reading our independent choice books. For 26 weeks, I’ve had to remind them, daily, and sometimes multiple times, that they bell is our signal to begin.

Today, that reminder never happened. It didn’t need to happen. Quiet swept the room as bodies settled, voices quieted, books opened, and pages started turning.

I took this opportunity to crouch next to my student who was still visibly upset.

“Hey, I can see that you’re not happy about your  new seat.”

“Yeah, I don’t like it very much.”

“Do you have any idea why I might have chosen this seat for you?”

“Probably because I talk all the time and don’t pay attention.” He was honest. Direct. And right on the button.

“So, how about this, give me three good days this week, and if you do, I promise I’ll honor at least one of your seating requests for next week.”

“Ok, I can do that.”

“You know that if your request doesn’t work next week, I’ll probably not honor your request for the following week, right? You have to show me that you can handle the responsibility of choice.”

“Yeah, I get it now. I’ll work on doing better.”

_____________

I had a handful of conversations like this today. Every single one of them went something like this one. They were kind, respectful, and ended on a positive note.

We changed up seating in all of my classes because it was time. We were in a funk. The energy in the room was stale. We’d fallen into some patterns that weren’t productive.

This knowledge hit me hard last week while we were struggling through sickness, fatigue, and behaviors that just weren’t helping us move forward. Rather than remembering that it was something I could fix, and rather easily, I had become complacent – not wanting to ruffle feathers or deal with potential conflict.

I was wrong.

Choice is both powerful and wonderful, but it can also be really challenging for many of our students. We should be empowering our students to make choices for themselves as often as they can, so they are used to making choices and seeing their impact or consequences. But sometimes, they’re not ready to make them.

So many of my students expressed relief that we’d changed seating. Although I let them move and self-select seating, many of them don’t. I think they get stuck in patterns just like we do, and even when they feel like they need to make a change, they worry about how that change will be perceived – by their peers, by me – and decide it’s just easier to stick with the status quo.

Today I let my students know that we’ll make both small and big changes to our home base tables on Wednesdays from now on. This will allow me to really spend some time reading and considering the requests they make as part of their weekly check-ins.

I was expecting revolt. Really, I’d created disaster conflict scenarios. Not a single one of them happened. Instead, my students worked with renewed energy. The room no longer felt stale. We all needed today’s shake-up even more than I expected.

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Amy Everywhere

For Amy – the kindest, funniest, fiercest woman I’ve ever known, the big sister I never had, my biggest cheerleader, and my wisest advisor. I miss you every single day. I only wish I had been better for you. More present. I am so grateful for the time we had, for the friendship we shared. I am the woman I am, the wife I am, the sister I try to be, and the teacher I am, because of your example. Also…I blame you for every penny I’ve spent on Longaberger baskets and books, and I am forever grateful for your playful prodding to surround myself with objects that made me happy. I miss you, friend. The world just isn’t as bright without you in it.  

As I looked around this morning

taking stock, feeling gratitude, building my to do list

my eyes locked on the Longaberger baskets hanging beside my door

and I smiled as I remembered

Amy’s prodding to “buy the baskets” because “they’ll last forever” and “it’s only money”

her voice so clear in my head, still so here, but not

perhaps visiting to nag or remind me about something I might otherwise forget.

 

She showed up again once I got to school

in the quiet moments before my students came in for first period

I surveyed the room

more of those damn Longaberger baskets that I have grown to love so much

and

splashes of color everywhere

a room full of spaces for my students to curl up with a good book

and the library we always imagined the room could hold

I felt her in that moment,

her arms wrapped around me in the only kind of hug that Amy knew how to give

tight, warm, the hug of a mom

or a big sister

enveloping me in her joy,

I could have sworn I heard her say, “I LOVE this! I’m so proud of you.”

 

And later, as I stepped outside

in the early spring sunshine

I immediately thought of those sunny afternoons

in those tough first years

that made me doubt everything

when she’d show up at my classroom door

and say, “Come on, go grab the dog, you’re coming to my house.”

(She didn’t even like dogs, but she loved mine because she loved me.)

More marching order than invitation

“It’s sunny, but it’s cool,” she’d say, “so grab a coat.”

I knew that meant we’d spend the afternoon outside.

Sitting and chatting in the sun

watching her kids play

waiting for Leigh and the boys

to show up too

so we could laugh

and play

and savor those early spring afternoons

that invited us outside after a long winter.

 

Amy was everywhere today

in my heart

on my mind

visiting, I’m sure

to nudge me to look up,

to get outside,

to play,

to remember the joy

and the beauty

and the fun

that is waiting around every corner

hiding in the nooks and crannies

of our days.

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Searching for Bright Spots

Nearly every post I wrote last week lamented that the week was a rough one, and it was. But the more I think about it, it wasn’t really rough, it was frustrating, inconvenient, and even a bit tiring, but rough – really and actually rough – in retrospect, it was not.

I woke up today with a plan. Admittedly, I wake up most days with too many plans and too little time, but today, especially after yesterday’s sweary epiphany, I knew I needed a plan to keep me out of the quicksand of complaints, frustrations, and the myriad other potentially negative obstacles that land in our paths. I knew I needed a plan to keep me from getting offended by things about which I wasn’t prepared to take action. I needed a plan to look for the bright spots.

Because, really, if you’re lucky enough to do this teaching work, the reality is that there are so many of them that happen every single day, and we miss them. We miss them because the dark moments scream louder, they knock the wind out of our sails, they make us feel like we’ve failed…and no one likes the sting of failure less than a teacher. (Sure, we learn from it – eventually – but it never really stops stinging, especially when we feel like our own decisions led to that failure.)

So, with no further adieu, a list of bright spots that, hopefully, help tell the story of my day.

  • a group of first period writers who were eager, on a Monday morning, to jump in and continue writing their narratives
  • watching a student, who is often highly oppositional, light up at the suggestion that he pivot and take on a new topic for his informational writing topic, one that has him genuinely curious and excited to learn about
  • a group of sophomores no longer put off by having to do the hard thinking work of generating writing topics asking questions that sounded more like “Can I also” rather than “Can I just…”
  • an 8th grade student who proudly carried in a giant scythe (think: grim reaper) he made as part of an art project – art is his favorite language
  • 8th grade students who were bubbling over with ideas about possibilities for their writing
  • the sweet silence in the classroom that comes when every single student is in the zone and focused on chasing their stories and curiosities – not sweet because it was silent, sweet because they were wholly and completely engaged
  • a really great conversation with a colleague about yesterday’s post, a summer book study, and looking forward to working together to put in place some new ideas that will help our students
  • finally getting (and taking) time during my planning time to reorganize and rearrange my work space
  • watching a class of 10th graders work through struggle and land at early understanding – having a front row seat in the place where real learning and growth were happening
  • closing my day of classes by sharing dog stories with my final class of the day, and seeing a fellow teacher lured in by the laughter
  • a walk in the crisp air and spring sunshine with my husband and our two boxers who still haven’t quite figured out this whole walking on a leash thing

Today, I focused on the bright spots and even though I know that not every moment was a bright one, I’d be hard-pressed to name a single one that wasn’t.

Today has been a great reminder that what we seek, we find.

*If you comment today, I’d love to keep the good vibes going…what was your bright spot?

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Sweary Rants and Lightning Strikes

As I scrolled through Twitter this morning, I noticed a tweet from our district’s Primary School principal. He’s someone with whom I built a strong and positive relationship when he was our district’s instructional coach, so I look forward to seeing what he’s thinking, learning, and doing now that his work has taken him to another building in our district. I always end up liking, retweeting, or commenting on his social media posts because they are positive, kind, full of the passion with which he leads, and sometimes, they really make me think.

Today, however, I didn’t retweet. I didn’t hit like. What happened was an eruption of emotion and initial anger that manifested itself in my sacred first response language…lots and lots of swearing.

The tweet in question was a quote from Brian Mendler, a man whose work I’m just getting to know, a man who has a strong social media following, someone from my area whose work is inspiring teachers and administrators far and wide, and a man whose work I have come to respect a great deal.

Today, though, his words pissed me off – at first.

Brian Mendler said, “One of the biggest problems with education is how offended we always get.”

(Many of my slice posts this month have relied on internal monologue to tell my stories. Today, it was all external. It might count as dialogue because I had an audience of two boxer puppies, but I also think it doesn’t, because, well…boxer puppies.)

“What the actual hell?”

“Are you f*&!ing kidding me? That’s what he thinks is one of the biggest problems in education? Seriously?”

“What is _____________ (insert principal’s name) thinking? Come on, man! Really? People in education ‘always’ getting offended is one of the plagues on the house of education?!”

“Screw that. No damn way. I’m actually offended by that tweet. Like really offended. Not just offended, either. PISSED. REALLY F&^%ING PISSED.”

“Politicians who create policies that make zero sense with zero input from educators. Now there’s a problem.”

“Evaluation systems that demoralize and dehumanize, valuing test scores over the students in the seats and the teachers tasked with helping them grow. PROBLEM!”

“Teachers who are overworked and underpaid, who feel like they have to constantly sacrifice their own health and well-being to be considered ‘good enough’. HUGE PROBLEMO!”

“Prescriptive programs that suck districts dry and yield little to no results when you have actual trained experts on staff. HELLO? Major Problem.”

“Schools that serve adults more than they serve students. Ummmm, yeah, PROBLEM!”

This ranting and pacing and gesticulating went on for quite awhile. My previous principal told me at some point that one day he realized that the freak out is part of my creative process. And he’s right. First the freak out. Then the light bulb. Today was no different.

(I’m super thankful my husband was still in bed and didn’t have to witness this – me pacing, hands gesticulating wildly, head shaking, sudden stops to pick up my phone to reread the post.)

In the middle of all this “creative process” I sent off a tweet to the principal to let him know that his tweet ‘might be the seed that inspires my Day 17 Slice of Life post’. I even tossed in a ‘stay tuned’. Oh, I’ll show him, I thought. Passive aggressive is a well-honed second language for me.

But then, almost immediately after hitting “Tweet”, the lightning bolt struck. I stopped dead in my tracks. My hands calmed. My head cleared. My breathing slowed.

“Holy s*&!. He’s right.”

Now, I wasn’t in the session where this was presented, so I can’t possibly know the entire context of the words, but suddenly this idea and some others I’ve been working through and thinking about came together and clicked into place.

I read 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle last spring when it came out and they talked about this idea, but with different language. They discussed victimhood vs. agency and advocated for teachers to help students reclaim their agency as a means for moving forward in ways that truly best serve our kids.

In November, I had the honor and privilege of attending the NCTE convention in Houston, and listened to them extend this beyond students to helping teachers reclaim their own agency to both best serve our students AND help move the profession and the conversations we have forward.

I’ve been in meetings in my own district that have us reading and discussion the Smart and Good Schools report, an important study that has us thinking about how we all approach working together to move past the things that make us crazy and move us toward finding solutions that work for our kids, for our building, for us.

It took me several minutes of pacing and swearing and gesticulating to figure out what I think Brian Mendler might have been talking about. I think it lies in stopping at being offended. At doing nothing to change the decisions and ideas that do offend us. At doing what we’ve always done to address behaviors and attitudes that haven’t changed no matter how many times we’ve given the warning, written the referral, given the stern talking to.

Getting and staying offended, but doing nothing productive about it is one of the biggest problems in education. It’s toxic. It destroys culture. It damages relationships. It builds walls. Hell, I’ve seen it build islands and ships we live on and sail on alone.

Getting offended and shooting off at the mouth (thank goodness my boxers can’t repeat the things that came out of my mouth before the lightbulb moment) has become the norm in so much of society, culture, politics, and even in families.

Getting offended and assuming that there is no compromise or solution, of not even trying to seek one (or many!), is the place where we give up our agency. It’s the place where we become victims. It’s the place where we blame and shame, pointing fingers rather than digging for answers. It’s where we create story that doesn’t exist or is nowhere near the truth. It’s the place where we rely on old answers that we know don’t work, but continue to rely on anyway. (Hello…insanity?!)

We are not helpless.

We are not victims.

We are uncomfortable.

And, according to Mendler, “Discomfort is the appetizer for growth.”

I think the problem isn’t so much that we get offended, it’s that we allow ourselves to stay there. To live there and build our house of beliefs on that toxic land.

We box ourselves in, surround ourselves with the walls built in response to all that offends us when what we need to be building are doors and windows through those moments of offense. We need to be solution seekers, not wall builders. Even and especially when our responses are the strongest, when we feel slapped the hardest. When victimhood becomes our modus operandi rather than agency.

I could have done without the emotional rollercoaster that was my response to that tweet from this morning. It was exhausting. It is Sunday. I wanted to read and rest and zone out.

But in the end, I’m thankful for this challenge. I needed it.

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Writer’s Block?

I’m sitting here in my living room, our two exhausted boxers stretched out sleeping on the floor, my husband in the recliner across the room watching videos he finds on social media, with the TV on, but none of us really watching attentively.

I picked something from the DVR list to watch, hoping it would attract my attention or inspire tonight’s writing. It has failed. Miserably.

I could sit here all night and beat myself up for not putting more thought and time into today’s post. It has to be good, better than this, I think. Frustration and this silly notion of getting it just right starting to bubble up. I knew this day would come. I should have had a list of ideas waiting for this moment. Maybe I should sit awhile longer and see what I can come up with.

I’m not going to do that. I’m going to finish out this thinking, hit publish, and go on with the rest of my evening. Maybe I’ll find something that captures my attention. Maybe it’s time to pick up a book – I haven’t been reading as much since this challenge started. Reading is absolutely my inhale, writing my exhale. Maybe exhaling, tonight, feels more difficult because the equation is unbalanced.

Today was an ordinary day, one spent with family. We talked, and laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company. It’s not that there are no stories hiding in those moments, it’s just that they are not stories I want to share with the world. I want to keep them for myself. To savor them in my head and my heart without complicating them with things like word choice and technique. Today’s moments were perfect just as they were. They were exactly what I needed.

Maybe what I’m feeling isn’t writer’s block. Maybe it’s more like peace – with my day, with my process, and with faith in the idea that even though the writing was hard today, it probably won’t be that way tomorrow.

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It’s Friday and I’m tired, but…

slice of life_individual

It’s true.

It’s Friday, and I’m tired.

My classroom, today (and most of the week) was a hotbed of germs and festering dead animal stench (something died in the wall and we’re suffering through it).

Most classes began this way:

“It’s cold in here. Why do you have your windows open on a day that’s so windy?”

“Well…it’s the wind or the return of the stench.  I’m going with the wind.”

Other classes began this way (especially the ones that were full of coughing, sneezing, drowsy sophomores just trying to make it through the day):

Kids enter the room with hoodies not pulled over their heads, but up over their mouths and noses.

“Are you still smelling the odor” (At this point I think my sense of smell has gone into voluntary shutdown as a means of survival.

“No, we’re using our shirts as a face mask to keep out the germs. It’s actually much better today as long as you stay away from the wall.”

Sidenote: Just about 50% of my sophomores have been out the last two days with the flu. It has wreaked havoc on our tiny building, mowing down kids and adults alike. This week we’ve been treading water more than we’ve been making progress. I’m frustrated, and so are my students.

“If you’re working hard to keep from getting sick, I have a full arsenal of Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. Use them to clean your space if that will make you feel more comfortable.”

And the day ended badly. I can’t even begin to tell that story because I’m still trying to make sense of it myself. It was nothing major. No bodily harm was endured. My class of ten cut in half by this illness (the remaining five – myself included – with immune systems going haywire trying to survive the last 43 minutes of the day) just did not go the way it should have. Frustration. Harsh words (albeit true, but that doesn’t make me feel any better). It was, however, the ending that sometimes comes with days like today, weeks like this week. We’ll recover on Monday. No permanent damage was done.

This day was a tough one. This week felt like one that never really allowed us to get our footing and hit our groove.

It’s Friday and I’m tired, but this morning, I discovered this tweet posted by my former student sometime yesterday, a student with whom I had a relationship that, at times, reminded me of this week. It wasn’t always easy. There was frustration. Sometimes there were harsh words, as well as moments of hurt, heartache, and confusion.

But those moments pale in comparison to the joy that fighting for her has given me. What she may know but may not ever fully understand until she gets to do it for someone else, is that that fight, those moments when I did whatever I could to make sure she knew that there was nothing she could do that would make me leave her corner, that no matter what, her feelings mattered and that I believed in her, those moments made me better too. They taught me more about myself and this calling than a person can learn from a book or a class. Those moments saved me too. I needed them as much as she did.

When I saw this tweet, I was immediately reduced to a heaving, ugly cry puddle of tears that felt like release and validation…and a little like pride too. I am so proud of our journey as teacher and student who have become friends. They reminded me of why this hard work is so vital. They reminded me that even in weeks like this one, when we feel like we’re getting nowhere and helping no one, we’re wrong. They also reminded me that I should probably finally make the switch to waterproof mascara (When will I learn?).

It’s Friday, and I’m tired, but I’ll make time to rest and reboot. I have to.  I need to be ready to fight again on Monday, so I can be the fighter my students need until they learn how to be their own.