Professional Writerly Life

On Learning & Fear & Going Really Fast . . .

Of the many lessons that my mother has definitely taught me, one that I often come back to is that you cannot let fear control your life. Usually this was under the guise of jumping rocks across a river, or peeing in the woods, or swimming far— out deep into the ocean. Perhaps she didn’t mean learning to drive a McLaren on the racetrack, but whatever the reason, I can hear her voice in my head whenever there is a cool opportunity and I am too scared to take the wheel.

As I sank low into the McLaren seat, I could almost feel the fear begin to grip me. I’ve played Forza before; my car never makes it around the first turn without a crash. Yet, I could see my Mom’s face, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, this was not the time to be a sissy.

Classroom Learning

When you learn to drive a McLaren on a track, the first step is to sit in a classroom and learn about the power behind the car (for me this part was more like instilling the fear of death into me, maybe necessary for the men in the room?— total opposite affect on me). Then we got into cars with a professional driver, he drove and talked his way around the skill he was teaching (3 different guided groups launch/breaking, slalom, autocross, and a guided look at the inside of the car).

It didn’t matter what guided group I was in, I was nervous. I kept thinking ahead to how the driver would eventually be switching seats with me, putting me in the driver’s seat, and expecting me to pull off the very kind of driving that was making me want to pee my pants as a passenger.

In the end, I was too scared to do the launch, something about going 0-80-0 made me want to cry. I sat in the car while the driver did it, and for me, that felt like an accomplishment enough. I did take the wheel in the slalom course and the autocross. Both times the instructors told me to only go as fast as I felt comfortable, and in the beginning that was probably about 25mph; I was not sure any part of me would ever feel comfortable on a racetrack in a helmet. But both times, the instructor coached me, through every turn, every break, and every “I’m scared now” comment I decided to blurt out.

On the track

Truthfully, I’m not sure I broke 100mph on the track when I was driving. But believe me, I learned a ton and as far as overcoming fears goes, I attacked a minefield in my life that day. I loved driving the McLaren, and I wouldn’t trade the day at Monticello for the world.

But this is a teaching blog, and so I have some important things to point out.

    1. Track Driving was a completely new skill for me and may of the people participating in this day. Notice the approach— whole class mini lesson— teacher led guided session— student led guided session — (the next step would have been independent practice, which I would have jumped all over, if I had any energy left). Kudos to McLaren for using educationally sound best teaching practice. The teachers were totally engaged the whole time, their methodology in teaching sound, as well as their enthusiasm/knowledge within their subject matter. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
    2. I was too scared to do the launch. The ride with the driver was accomplishment enough. Sometimes are students are not ready for a new skill, but there is nothing wrong with exposing them, and providing them with the experience as a stepping stone for the day they are ready.
    3. I had a hard time listening to the instructors because I was nervous and felt out of my element in a helmet and a Supercar. How often does this happen to my students? Are they missing what I’m saying because they’re sitting in a desk with a pencil, instead of on a couch with a computer?
    4. My instructor happily repeated the same instructions he had told me on lap one, on lap twelve— and I desperately appreciated needed the confirmation. At that point I was whispering in my head, “break at the second cone, come off slow, turn, accelerate” but knowing that he was saying the same thing aloud gave me the courage to step on the gas . . . even if it was just a little. Do I have the patience to happily repeat instructions to my students twelve times?  How can I get them to tell me what they are thinking in their head? Am I acknowledging my students when they step on the gas a little? Am I continuing to press them to go for another lap?
    5. I was exhausted. From driving. By the end of the day, I was seriously wiped. Poor Evan had to drive home while I lay as still as possible next to him with my eyes shut. This day was hard for me; everything was literally new. Am I watching for when my students need a break? New stuff is hard for everyone.

Now that I have written this, I wonder if my Mom will read this and comment that the lesson she taught me when I was younger, to not let fear control your life, had nothing to do with driving on a track in a McLaren? Ha, don’t worry Ma, I survived!Better Line Up


a moment just before

“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’ve found myself sitting here, in the moments just before, wondering where summer went, wondering if I’m ready for the days ahead.

Maybe I should back up a bit; I’ve forgotten something here. . . .

I’m more than excited to tell you, that I’ve taken on a new role in the morning as a Literacy Specialist for 7th and 8th grades. Wahoooooooo! I’m still teaching in the afternoons, but my mornings are about to be busy in a whole new sort of way, and so I’m wondering if I’m ready for the days ahead.

I’ve been dreaming about this very job, living in this “moment just before” for what feels like forever. Honestly I wouldn’t trade any minute of my in the classroom time, but I’ve always wanted to work with adults, to hand them resources, to help them hunt for the perfect solution.

Maybe it has taken me so long to write this to you, because I don’t have the words for the gratitude I’m feeling right now, for this chance, for this dream come true.

But for right now, I’m going to savor this quiet just before we begin; I’m going to remember my roots and how I got right here; I’m going to be thankful for the journey.


Guest Blogger Amy Petrilla: Still Standing

Here at notesfromahappyteacher, we love all teachers (side note we also love guest bloggers). But, we especially love Amy Petrilla. I can’t tell you the amount of times she has pulled me though hard teacher stuff, and reminded me why I am ahappyteacher. She’s done some reflection, and I am proud to share it with you. Her voice is real. Her voice is authentic. Her voice is the future of teachers who are sticking with their craft.


After six years of teaching in the field of special education, I think I may have beaten the statistical odds of burn out. I’m pretty sure that at times those odds were winning, but I find myself still standing. For six years my worlds of special education and general education have collided, and especially after this past year I have continued to learn so many things that I wish I could have applied to my past teaching years.


No I have not been perfect and yes I have made plenty of mistakes, but this past year really stirs up my first major feelings of failure in my teaching career. I was given a brand new age group (and the youngest age group yet), and I absolutely did the best that I could; however my regrets had nothing to do with this particular group of students. All year I called on important people and the best-practice research around me as a guide. By the end of the year I realized how far my students had come. This caused me to remember students from past years. I have recently learned so much from which my former students could have benefited. Again, I know I did the best I could with them and they certainly made progress (and I think some of the best progress was not actually on paper- it was the smiles and acceptance of my students finally into regular education classrooms). Yet, I feel that I had failed those students. That I had made mistakes. That if I had only known what I know now, I could have done so much more for them.


But this is the most important thing that I what everyone reading this to know: fighting through the mistakes is crucial. No wonder why the most excellent teachers are ones that think outside of the box, aren’t afraid of the fall of failure, and who are continuously learning and growing and seeking out the best information- always striving to better themselves for their beloved students.


Every so often my mind slips back to a few years ago when I had my first challenges with the politics of special education and inclusion. Recalling these times instantly renews my fire and drenches any ominous flames of burnout or fears of failure. I have learned so much, but I still have a lot to learn; and I have a whole new group of students waiting.


My job is not done. I am not done. I am still standing.


So, I will leave you with a personal journal entry from those times when I was literally fighting for my students’ rights. My entry is not pretty or even politically correct, but it is real. And I believe it is applicable to more than just a special educator’s life:


This passage is written with the terms “us” and “we” and “they” and “them” because that is unfortunately the language that the world identifies with:


“We have dreams and fears.  We can feel and we can care.  We have talents and intelligence.  We can love, as well as laugh and cry.  But we can be confused because sometimes it is hard to find our ‘voice.’ We are misunderstood, overlooked, swept under a rug.  Convenient? Maybe you only see us if we serve you some particular purpose. Maybe you only see us as numbers and statistics. But we are more than that.


Don’t over look us, but don’t pity us. We are deep and intricate; we are beautiful. Will you be our ‘voice’? What will you say, and what will you do? How will you love us, and what will they know about us because of you? Do they realize that we are real people, not just a CNN news special or a Lifetime movie? This is reality. How will you react? Will you be defeated, or pass the responsibility on to someone else? What is your purpose, and will you help us find ours?


The world is tough enough, so fight as you can. But don’t shelter us. And don’t let them get the best of you.  You see us for who we truly are- and when you remind yourselves of that, your minds become untainted and fresh. Be sharp, but don’t forget about love. Persevere, but take it one step at a time. We are always changing. We are constantly growing. And so is the world. And just like them, we have something to say too. Will you be our ‘voice’?”


So yes, students, I will be your voice. I am eager to learn with you and to experience mistakes with you. I have not given up.

Professional Writerly Life

in the right place

I was sitting talking with a trusted friend over break, when she asked me, “Could you write a blog about that?”

I looked back in horror, “On happy teacher?”

We were complaining, well maybe we were just dreaming of things being better. We were talking of teacher burnout at seven years into our profession. No teacher should be burned out at seven years in, especially not the best (and believe me this friend of mine is the best). Yet, somehow we were both tired. Tired of small classrooms and crazy climate swings within them. Tired of pouring our salary directly back into our classroom. Tired of . . . well we went on.

But, then the conversation shifted. Is it worth it? No, it’s not. Are we crazy? Yes, we are.

Yet for both of us, somehow we recalled small, gentle, yet boldly visible moments that push us out of the burnout and into the fire that we’ve had since before we went to college.

A girl writes about her identity, who she is and what she needs to change to be who she wants to be.

A mother communicates with her son for the first time on a level that crushes the past and opens doors to the future.

A child reads their first book cover to cover and begs for more.

Or even, the moment in the middle of a lesson when you look like a complete fool and you’re sweating and singing and cheering on the kids— and you look around and realize the whole room is captivated, the whole room is learning, every kid is exactly where they are supposed to be and so are you.

Sure as teachers we need to be careful of burnout and burnout conversations that lead to nowhere. Mostly though, we need to be careful to seek out the fire and fight to live there, because if your day/week/month contains even one of those fire moments, you’re in the right place and you know it.


Professional Writerly Life

That too.

I journaled twice last week about reasons I love being home— there are a lot. But all the people that know me best are looking at me with questioning eyes, some are surprised I came home at all, so I’ll admit it, I wanted to stay at Columbia forever and become a teacher for the project. Maybe next year? For now, I’m sitting here with a highlighter, pouring through at least 100 pages of notes and two curriculum calendars.

Overwhelmed? Definitely. Christmas morning excited? That too.

Two weeks at Columbia was certainly an information overload. I wanted to blog everyday while I was there, but New York City is magical even for a workaholic like myself.

I’ve posted a lot about the week of writing instruction I had, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface with volume of information I’m actually taking away. My plan is to start tomorrow with the Reading Institute, and work on processing that. I promise to go back throughout the year and touch on each of these as they play out in my classroom.

As a side note, if you’re wondering where I’ve been (besides spending time networking for another project I’m working on), I’ve been snuggled up with my kindle.

On my first day at the Reading Institute, Mary Ehrenworth said this, “Reading about teaching reading but not actually reading novels is like talking about running but not actually running—you’re still not skinny.”

I’ve got a two-page book list— books for the kids, books for me, and only a few professional books, because summer is the perfect time to get lost in a dystopian fantasy. This reading teacher is off to . . . read. Maybe I’ll share my list with you during my next break?

Classroom Professional Writerly Life Writing

breaking silence— part 2

Coming up with an idea, something I needed to write about, that wasn’t hard. In fact, I easily produced at least five pretty quality topics I could have used. Even then, collecting story seeds around my idea wasn’t hard either. For a few of my topics, I had well over ten pages of writing. But then I had to name the issue, or the common theme throughout the seeds that I would be able to weave into my memoir.

It was in this process of searching and reflecting that I realized this was a project where I could face hard things head on or choose something easy and go through the motions (much like the book report I did on Rachel Carson every year throughout elementary, middle, and high school). But, you don’t travel from PA to New York, pay to go to Columbia, and fork over NYC rent to write a piece that tells you the something you already knew.

Now I’m going to take a second and pause, I’m not sharing my final piece with you. I don’t want to get your hopes up with all this reflecting and then have you be disappointed in the end. I’ve already shared the piece out as far as it goes, which pretty much means the people in my class, and Jess (my writing partner from home), oh and little baby Siena & her awesome momma Michele because they were there for one of the torturous revision sessions I put myself through. Sometimes we (our students too) need to write and not share it with the world. For me the topic I ended up picking is a little too raw to share with everyone, at points it felt too raw for me. So, while I wish I could share some amazing piece with you, know this—I tackled hard stuff, I grew.

Okay back to the process. Once I found the topic that I needed to write about, I asked myself the hard questions, I boxed out the parts of the stories that revealed what I was trying to say. We began to study mentor texts, to see how other authors had done the same thing that we were trying to do.

At this point I began to use a few tricks that we were seeing in mentor texts.

  1. Reflection- using questioning within the text
  2. All the time- this is how it always would go; he would or she would always
  3. One time- but this one day
  4. Symbols & Metaphor

And because I am a classic version of the overachiever, I used all of them.

Even just typing this out, I am amazed at the process, and how much thinking I was forced to do. Somewhere in the middle of all this, we revised for structure. We had been doing a lot of up close looking at the text and working within reflection for so long that I had almost forgotten to pull myself away and analyze the story structure.

The story structure thing, it was pretty huge for me, so I’m going to stop here and save that for its own blog. It deserves it.

To be continued . . .


Classroom Professional Writerly Life Writing

breaking silence—part 1

It’s Saturday morning and I owe you myself a little bit more in the way of reflection on this past week (umm where did this week go? & I may never come back).

Let me start by saying, there is something crucial to writing, the way it helps us remember, process, and pause. One of the best parts of this week at Columbia may not have been the way I learned to teach my students, but rather the way I learned to teach myself.

In my morning class, with Sara Kugler, we focused on memoir. Memoir is different from personal narrative in that while a personal narrative is written from the perspective of the main character experiencing the event for the first time, a memoir is written from where the author is today looking back—it includes the truth of your experience.

Sara quoted Katherine Bomer often in class, which pretty much captured my heart from the beginning . . .

We write memoir to break the silence surrounding who we are.
We write memoir to awaken the I.
We write memoir to bear witness.

Maybe it was then that I realized I was in the right place. This is the writing my heart needs and fears at the same time. This is the writing my kids need me to show them. I would pay close attention. I would learn how to teach and pull from my kids. I would allow myself to be taught and pulled.

Then the assignment: go the places you don’t usually let yourself go.

I have to say it was hard for me, not hard like I really had to focus hard, hard like I sat for what felt like hours with pen in hand doing nothing but crossing out the previously written word.

But, just because something is hard or just because my pen wasn’t writing as fast as it normally does, doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning, doesn’t mean it wasn’t exactly what I needed.

To be continued . . .

Classroom Professional Writing

Catching Up

As it turns out, both Stacy & I are away at conferences this week. If you’ve never been to a great summer conference, I would check one out. Last year, I did the Kutztown one the Stacy is at, and I loved it. This year, I’m opting for two weeks at Columbia—it doesn’t really matter where you go, just go. There is something about being in a community of people who are all excited about teaching that gives you new ideas and new courage to take risks in your classroom.

I thought I would have been posting Monday, seeing as I am so excited to share with you. As it turns out, I had forgotten about having homework and still trying to live like a New Yorker and how tired that makes me. So, here it is day three, I’m still not done tomorrow’s homework, but I wanted to pull out something from the 50 pages of notes I’ve taken so far.

Goal Setting. I’ve known it was important since, well since forever, my Mom does teach at Benchmark after all! I can set goals for myself with my eyes closed, but writing goals have been another story. Truth, I’m still not where I want to be when it comes to writing conferences. Truth, I’ve come a long way. What I was reminded of today was something I learned at Benchmark years ago and had forgotten to take into my conferences this year. Goal setting should be teacher directed at first, but the job should be gradually released to the students. Clearly, this will be easier for some students than others, but independence in goal setting is crucial to developing a writerly life.


So, here are my notes from my morning session with the AmAzInG, Sara Kugler


Goal Setting

  1. Identify Writing Goal- based on the qualities of writing. It should be big—across a whole unit and multiple genres
  2. Choose a mentor text that will help you
  3. Study mentor text for- What, How, Why or What Effect
  4. Apply it to your writing


Somehow I’ll get around to writing more, and if for some reason I don’t get around to it while I am up here, I promise to keep the happiness coming as soon as I get home.


Dean’s Institute

I have just finished my second day of The Dean’s Institute at Kutztown University (ok, so it isn’t Columbia in NYC)  My first two days have been with Mark Overmeyer talking about writing workshop.  If you haven’t heard of Mark yet, find out where he will be speaking and go to see him.  If you are looking for a lot of bells and whistles with his presentation you won’t get them (thank goodness!), what you will get is a down to earth, honest, extremely talented teacher of writing sharing what he has learned through years of working with teachers and students.  It feels so good to sit in a room with an “expert” presenter and practicioner and feel like he is a kindred spirit, I have had a smile on my face the whole time.  Just to throw you a few examples of his message:

  • If they can’t talk it they can’t write it- students need to talk about their writing before they write anything
  • Write everyday, no matter what, if they learn that writing is something we are all welcome to do they will not fear it.
  • It doesn’t matter the level of the student, they all deserve an opportinuty to be a better writer.
  • The only student who you can’t help with writing is a student who has a blank page.
  • If students are behind their peers they need to do more writing, not less.
  • Accelerate not decelerate
  • When looking at student writing, if you go straight to evaluation you miss many opportunities to learn from the student, admire their writing first and foremost.

I told you he was great!  The simple message I hope for all  teachers to take from Mark is to ADMIRE student writing, start from what they can do and move forward from there…what a different world of writers we would be growing if everyone truly lived this.


Brooklyn Bound


I’m on my way to Brooklyn, classes start on Monday at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College where I’ll be attending The Writing Project for five days. The following Tuesday I’ll start classes for The Reading Project.

I’m crazy excited. Last summer I attended just the writing portion and it changed my life. This summer I’m expecting nothing less, and I’m totally excited to be in class all day from 9AM-4PM!

Here’s why I’m telling you all this. I’ll be blogging a bit more while I am away—Hopefully, sharing great information that you can use in your classrooms!

Feel free to:
-Join in. Leave Comments and Discuss
-Ask me questions to ask the people up at Columbia
-Repost something I write on your Facebook or Blog
-Send links to the blog to your colleagues
-Talk even if you’re not a teacher, I love your voice, share away ☺