Seated around the breakfast table with our kids this morning, it was hard to not get wistful for a moment. To take a moment to appreciate the last decade, the wonder of the ten years that have passed, a decade that brought us three more kids through the miracles of medicine. A decade that started with me in my second year of teaching, ready to give up on it all but instead beginning a blog, which led to a book and then three more books, and then to travels around the world trying to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. A decade shaped by new friendships but also lost ones. Of more love, of new wrinkles, of back problems and first world privilege. And a year that was for the most part uneventful in the best of ways, a year that came in quietly and leaves us in a flurry. As the kids made funny jokes, threw mini tantrums, and we celebrated Thea’s 11th birthday, we asked what they loved the most about the last year. What stood out?
A few things were crowd favorites; travels to Costa Rica , Taiwan, and New York, going to school and starting new classes (phew), getting Piglet, our hedgehog after many months of research. All extraordinary events that shaped our year. Events out of the ordinary. Events that we counted down to, saved up for, commemorated in our albums of pictures. And yet, it was in the moments after that my thoughts gathered. The little moments that make our years, the routine and ordinary. The life lived in the mundane that truly shaped this year.
Taking long walks with Brandon as we contemplated our lives and tried to figure out the everyday trials and triumphs of parenting.
Reading books in small moments, whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Text messages received from family and friends. Emails, phone calls, and letters.
A fresh cup of tea awaiting in the kitchen when I came home.
A car with heated seats, finally.
Friday movie nights ensuring us that our love of Star Wars was dutifully passed on.
Pool time naps.
Quiet work time before the students show up.
Thea trying out a new sense of humor.
Ida discovering her dyslexia super strength.
Oskar making sure to say I love you.
Augustine deciding that school is fun even it is work.
Saying thank you. Saying please. Saying yes.
This is when we lived. These are the moments that have shaped us. That will continue to shape us. All of the everyday decisions and breaths that we take that make up our entirety.
And while 2020 will carry many extraordinary events into our lives; Brandon’s graduation with a degree as a tech ed teacher (need a teacher in your school?), my 40th birthday, travels to Iceland and Puerto Rico, Thea starting middle school, it will be in the mundane that we live. In the moments for small contemplations. In the moments of quiet. Of loud. Of sameness, routine, and commitment. Of embarking on a year of yes and more. Of stretching ourselves to the fullest when we can and retracting when we want to. Of looking up, as Joanna Gaines, reminds me to do, of soaking it all in, of shutting down and tuning in. Commitments to a life best lived not in the magnificent margins but in the everyday extraordinaires.
I am so grateful for 2019, for a life lived in the daily. Perhaps our paths will cross?
For a long time, I felt like an oddity within my reading beliefs: provide students with independent reading time every single day, provide a fully-stocked culturally relevant collection of books, remove all of the reading projects that stood in the way of reading joy, focus on reading identity at all turns. But then I discovered others who shared those same beliefs, who had held those beliefs long before I had reached them, who had pioneered the work spreading the word around the globe. The relief and power that finding others provided is one that cannot be underestimated. The strength that comes with working for a district that shares these beliefs is a blessing.
And yet, I know there are many others that have felt and do feel like the oddities in their school. Who constantly have to defend why self-selected independent reading is a cornerstone of their work. Who have to explain why they continue to spend their own money, ask for money, write grants and do anything they can to purchase more books. Who spend so much time trying to keep up with new books, who weed and discard books that do not have a place in their collection. Who feel alone but might not be.
An incredible honor for me is when I am asked to work with a district or school who is on a journey of trying to reach their readers in a more significant way. Who knows they have work to do and who are ready to take the next step. Who are not afraid to reflect and change even when change is hard. When I am asked to do this work, I always have many questions; what does reading look like now? Which experiences are each reader guaranteed as they go through their journey? What are the rights of your readers when it comes to book choice, independent reading, and reading identity? These questions lead to many discussions, many aha moments, and provide a road map for change. Much like we need to give students the space to create their rights a readers within our community, we need to also create our expectations and rights as a district. What are the experiences that each reader is guaranteed at each level of their schooling beyond the curriculum we use? How can we then make curricular and business (because let’s face it part of schools’ direction is determined by the business aspect) decisions that protect and further these rights? How can we offer training and funding to support these rights? Hw can we invite the community into this conversation? How can we embrace antiracist principles and establish an emphasis on the individual’s rights and needs?
In the spirit of this pursuit, I offer up several questions that should be asked at a district level or at the very least, school level, in order for student reading rights to be protected. After all, if our goal is for students to leave our care not only being able to read well but also find an inherent human value within reading then we need to create experiences that safeguard that.
So please start asking…
How much time is each child guaranteed for self-selected independent reading time each day?
Too often we see independent reading get cut due to fewer instructional minutes, particularly as students get older and we bring in more whole class novels or book clubs. We also see it limited for students who are in intervention or have other needs. Yet, if students are not offered up time to independently ready every single day, how can we then support them in their reading?
What are students “allowed” to read?
While the answer should be “anything they want” this is often not the case as choice is often limited due to well-meaning intentions. Students who read below grade level are often given the least amount of choices, in order to help them have more successful reading experiences, yet within the helpful intent of that we can end up doing real damage. Can you imagine always being told what to read and never being able to work through a book of your choosing? What we should be focusing our energy on is how to help students navigate the choices they make as well as develop better book selection habits.
Where and how can students access books?
A well-developed school library with a librarian should be a right for every child, as should a well-stocked culturally relevant classroom collection curated by a teacher who reads. We need books to entice every reader at all turns, so asking this question can open up discussions of inequitable access, culturally insensitive books, gaps in collections, as well as the need for teachers who teach reading to be readers themselves. How is funding appropriated for books? How are collections developed? How are books placed in the hands of kids?
What are students expected to do once they finish a book?
So often, and in my own experiences, we have a lot of work lined up for kids once they finish a book all in the name of accountability. Whether it be forced book talks, book reports, summaries or readers’ responses, reading logs or other tools that involve counting minutes and needing signatures, or having to take a quiz on a computer, we are so busy policing the experience of reading that we forget to look at what we, as adults, want to do when we read a book. These accountability practices can do a lot of damage, particularly if students are exposed and expected to do them year after year. By asking this question, we can start to look at long-term experiences and how that may be impacting reading identity throughout our years together.
What does reading “homework” look like?
While currently in my own classroom, students are expected to try to read at least 2 hours outside of English class every week, this is not how it used to be. I had packets and worksheets lined up for their reading, as well as small summaries, and book talks with friendly adults who had not read the book. This question goes hand in hand with the previous one as it looks at the components we attach to reading, as well as potential inequities within our practices. What are we tying in with the homework being completed or not? Not all kids are in a position to read outside of school, not all kids have access to what they need or are in a place in their journey where they see enough value to dedicate outside class time to reading.
Who are kids expected to read?
While this is a question that speaks to a much larger issue surrounding the canon and who we, as educators, constantly expose students to as literary masterminds, it is also important that we locally audit across grade levels to see who is being shared and more importantly who isn’t. Often we base our read alouds, book clubs, and text selections on our own favorites with little thought to what has come before and what will come after for our students, but since publishing skews heavily white, cisgendered, and heteronormative, this tends to become the reading experience for many students as well, particularly those within white majority districts or taught by mostly white educators. Diving into this questions can and should fundamentally change the canon we present to students year after year.
While there are many other questions to ask, the few shared here will offer up a path way to further investigation into the reading practices embedded within a district. It is definitely a conversation that is needed and should be pursued on an ongoing basis. After all, if we don’t ask the questions and reflect on the journey we place students on, how will we ever change?
One of many things I love when on break is the chance to simply reconnect with amazing people, and when said amazing people are fellow educators, you can bet that it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to how to make the educational experience better for all kids.
After dinner, I was left thinking about how often we get so caught up in all that we need to do that so many of those grand ideas, the ideals we dreamt up this summer or whenever we have room to be inspired seem to be forgotten as the year starts and the pressure resumes. That while we implement many things, tweak many others, there are many notions and ideas that simply don’t happen. And who can blame us? There are so many days that I am just keeping my head afloat trying to stay a few steps ahead of the students in order to create and sustain relevant educational experiences.
Last night, the conversation turned to joy and play. How little there seems to be purposefully implemented throughout especially older students’ daily routines in school. How the minute they come to us in the upper years there are few opportunities for infusing joy and allowing more creative approaches to learning. And while both of those concepts are foundations of learning I hold dear, I also look back at my own curricular choices for the year and see how easily those two tenets of learning get siphoned away as I feel the need to do more, dig deeper, and make sure that the learning is “serious.” However, the siphoning itself relies on a untruth – joy and creative choice does not equate easier learning and is serious business, in fact, often purposefully creating moments for joy and creative choice requires a broader commitment and self-reliance within the learning happening. So with this in mind, I have done some restructuring of a few upcoming units and also rededicated efforts in other places, so what might that look like coming up in room 203?
The main questions I focused on in my reflection is: how might this spark joy and engagement and how do students have creative choice?
Re-committing to picture books. I usually read a lot of picture books aloud to my 7th graders and also use them in a variety of ways throughout our curriculum and yet, this year, I feel like with the busyness of it all, picture books have been less of a central tenet to us. It’s time to change that. In a little more than a week we kick off our Mock Caldecott unit for the year, a two week investigation into twelve incredible picture books for the year that will lead into a persuasive speech in which students will try to sway others to their choice of winner of the Caldecott. Reading picture books together is something that we already see as joyful and doing it in small groups will hopefully bolster that. Creative choice comes in how students want to persuade their peers – how will they deliver a message that is persuasive in nature and which tools will they use?
Bringing back our immersion project. Two years ago, I did an extended genius hour project in which students got to pick something to learn for themselves in order to teach others about it through a mini-lesson. This consisted of identifying an area to immerse themselves in and then spending time figuring out how to create an enticing lesson for others to learn from them. The topics were broad: How to do a card trick properly, what integration methods are necessary to integrate any function and how are they used, how do you play guitar and so on? These were all catered to student interests and were very broad on purpose. We then infused note-taking skills, how to find sources to teach them how to do the skills, and how to engage an audience in order to help them understand a concept, as well as created a speech rubric in order to practice public speaking. This year, I will finetune it with a few more scaffolds for those who are not sure what they would like to teach, as well as opportunities to tandem-research. This project sparked a lot of joy the first time we did it because students got to self-select their learning, immerse themselves into something they found relevant, as well as show off their knowledge in a fun way. There was a lot of natural choice embedded throughout.
Re-thinking our TED talk unit. Every year, the students get an opportunity to create a TED talk on a chosen topic and then give it to the class, and while the unit itself is solid, I want to spend more time helping students choose topics that they are invested in already. This year many of our students have expressed a deep interest and commitment to social justice work, as well as the overlooked history we have explored. This will, therefore, be my starting point in reminding students of what they already know and which questions they may have to push their thinking further. So often we push students into new learning without realizing how much work it is to research and then synthesize and process all of the information into a brilliant short speech. With the re-introduction of our immersion project, I want to implement more time for students to dive into their identity and what they are already interested in so that their TED talk work can be more focused on filling in knowledge gaps, rather than starting all over with research. This will also be an opportunity to jump into persuasion, how advertisement plays on our biases, and how we are influenced by social media. Choice plays into topic, as well as the angle they want to take in their talk.
Asking for more student input and taking the proper time for it. In the Enriched English class I teach, we have 6 vocabulary lessons consisting of 25 vocabulary words each that we need to somehow process, understand, and implement into our vocabulary. While I have gamified it in the past and also allowed for choice in how students show mastery, I have never really loved what we did. The words seem like a chore no matter how I spin it This year, I plan on showing students the vocabulary and then having them come up with opportunities for how we can learn it together. While there will undoubtedly be traditional methods for students to choose from such as rote memorization with a quiz, I also want to give them the opportunity to come up with other methods for learning that they will be able to choose from as we move into the vocabulary. While I already try to get as much student input as possible, I feel it often gets rushed, so this is a reminder for me to slow down and let it take the time it takes, and this goes for all classes, not just the Enriched English class.
Re-committing to free writing. We have been dabbling with free-writing throughout the year but due to book clubs in December, we changed our process. While students continued to write on their own, the community piece was lacking and so as we enter into January, I want to bring back the prompts and self-selected choice and the time to then share the creations we have. I also want to bring back the notion of playing with writing that so often gets lost as we write. Students so often fear that they have to write great pieces every single time which is an incredibly damaging notion for anyone trying to work through the emotions of writing and so I want to model my own not-so-great writing that tends to happen when we do a free-write. Students don’t need perfect role models, they need real ones.
Skyping with authors. Talking with actual authors is magical at any age and the advent of World Read Aloud Day reminded me to sign up to bring authors into our classrooms more. This is something I used to do a lot but once again seem to have gotten away from. I cannot wait for students to hear from Kevin Sylvester, Juana Martinez-Neal and Ishta Mercurio as they discuss their writing process.
Participating in Global School Play Day again. I love this initiative created by Scott and Tim Bedley with the idea to infuse more play into schools again. I have done this day before with 7th graders and while I am not able to do it the day it is scheduled for this year, I will do it instead on February 7th where students will get all of English to simply play with each other. You should sign up as well.
While this is not an exhaustive list, I am glad to be bringing this lens back to our work together this year to hopefully create experiences where it is not just students learning from me, but more from each other. Where there is more cooperative problem solving, more relevance, and more choice. Where maybe, just maybe, students can think of English class as a class that is meaningful to them beyond developing a love of reading and writing and helping them find themselves. Who knows, but I will keep trying.
I posted the following question on Twitter last night and the responses are definitely worth checking out – so many great ideas for infusing more play and creativity into our work.
And now I ask you as well; how will you restructure or continue to reinforce the notion of play and creative choice in your class these upcoming months?
A personal post as the break offers time to ruminate on the ways I live my lives. Moving these thoughts out into the universe so that I can return to regular thoughts on this blog.
I never assumed perfection and yet in looking back I see the strive for it every day. How hard I have fallen on myself whenever I have made a mistake. How I have carried these burdens with me as if they were a weight to carry. Held them up at every opportunity where happiness clouded my vision and I felt so undeserving.
I have done my best and yet I know how often I have screwed up, how I have said it the wrong way, how I have offended, not done enough, not been enough. I can look back at my path and see it through the lens of failure, revisit every pot hole, every blockade. Can’t we all? Those words that cut and thrown my way have become my skin for so many years that there is little left over.
And I have allowed myself to continue on a path of accumulating disasters. Of accumulating failure. Of seeing myself through a lens of never enough, of not good enough, of not deserving the happiness that surrounds others. Of holding my breath because sure, soon, so soon, the happiness I do have will be taken away. Reallocated to someone who should have had it in the first place. The feeling of fradulence seeping through my pores.
How dare I take up space?
How dare I raise my voice?
How dare I ask more questions?
How dare I think that I am okay?
But these words have become too heavy to carry, the mirror become too big and I hear ir reflected in the voices of my students whose pasts haunt chase them into our classroom. Who tell me that for them there is no future, that what lies ahead has already been determined. That despite the proof in front of them, they will never be smart, they will never be good, they will never be anything because failure is what is familiar. Failure and fear are their constants.
And I see the harm. And I get exasperated. And I speak louder and more insistently trying to help them rewrite their narrative because they are so much more than that. And yet they smile, shrug, and repeat once again, “I am nothing…” but we tell them, “you are so much more than that…”
I am so much more than that.
So for this Christmas I forgive myself. Not because I am perfect but because this is not the way to live. This is not the way to learn.
I forgive myself for the past mistakes I have carried with me for so long. Forgive, but not forget, the ways I have needed to grow so that I can be better.
I will unwrap the moments that shaped me and redistribute their weight.
I will be grateful for the long path I still have to walk and make room for all of the moments still coming my way.
I will reclaim my space so that my kids can see what it means to be strong, and sure, and also human.
And I will be okay. Not because I finally deserve it but because I have been okay all along, just not able to see it.
These words will be empty until I live them, but they are being put out in the universe in case others need to hear them too.
In June, I published my Best Books of 2019 So Far list, the very next day after publishing it, I read an incredible book, and then another, and then another. And so as it happens, the list continues, here are all of the incredible books that I loved in 2019. I know I missed some so please let me know your favorites as well.
And I know the year is not over yet, and so this list will inevitably be updated but I also want to allow myself to take time off from work during this month.
While the year is not over yet, this was another great year of reading. I continue to marvel at the strength of the books that come out, the broader marketing of better representative books – even though we still have so far to go – , and also the guts that our children’s’ authors and illustrators continue to have when it comes to what they tackle for kids. I am so grateful for all of these creators and the continued magic they provide us with. I also know I missed books this year, so what did I miss? What were your favorite must reads?
Chocolate calendar opened. Candles burning bright. Christmas tree up and presents are starting to appear below it as we think back on the year that was and the look forward to the year that will be. To the year I turn 40, to the 10th year of this blog.
For the past year, I said no a lot, focusing on my family as my husband enters his final year of his education degree – I cannot wait for him to graduate in a year! As my kids settled into new routines, as we worked through another diagnosis for one of the children. No to anything extra that would take my focus away from my family, away from my classroom. And I loved it, mostly, it was wonderful to have time to breathe and time to re-prioritize. But…and there’s always a but. I missed out on great opportunities to learn. On meeting new people. On exploring new facest of my life that I otherwise would have grown from.
So with the blessing of my husband, I am embarking on a year of “yes.” On saying yes to as much as I can manage, on saying yes to new collaborations, to new adventures, to new learning. On saying yes when it feels like a great fit either personally or professionally. On saying “yes” when it feels as if I can help in some way.
While it will not be yes to everything, after all, I am only human and do not want to work all of the time, it will be a lot more yes than no, a lot more let’s try than no thanks. A time to perhaps write another book, to blog when I can, to learn as much as I can.
So this is my invitation to the world; whether it’s for collaboration, working with other teachers or speaking at a conference, whether it is trying a new idea, meeting new people, doing interviews or reflecting through something, whether it’s for friendship or some other thing, send your idea my way. Reach out, send an email, come say hi if our paths cross.
Welcome to the year of yes, I cannot wait to see what happens.