Gratitude

Gratitude.

It’s the end of the first week of school, and I’m stuck in the pits of gratitude.

I am thankful for so many things, including a later wakeup this Saturday morning and a second cup of coffee that sits by me patiently, while I gather my foggy thoughts.

In no particular order, because I can’t figure out how to go on without a bullet point list, let me bring you up to speed.

  • ALL of my laundry is done and put away. This includes towels and sheets and it’s only 9am on Saturday morning as I write this…
  • I turned thirty (and the celebration/video work that followed that was amazing, so I’m still not over how great it is to be thirty!)
  • I still get to work with the 7th grade teachers as a literacy coach!
  • I moved and my new place has a whirlpool, hello relaxation.
  • Our school bought the Units of Study in Writing for grades K-8 (oh seriously I’m more than excited about this!!)
  • There are so many new babies in my life and I love love them all.
  • I’ve got a boyfriend (well, I’ve had one for over a year now, but I haven’t posted on here for awhile). He is amazing.
  • My donors choose classroom project for new books got funded.
  • Friends asked me to post another donors choose project because they didn’t get a chance to give! Ahhh
  • I’m going to a poetry reading next Friday with Sarah Kay & Taylor Mali.
  • My calendar is full of things I LOVE to do.
  • I’m in a new amazing grad program.

But lastly, I’m back with my students.

And I’m totally stuck there, because at one week in they are melting my heart. They are asking the right questions, they are trusting me for the journey of this year, they have secured my spot in the pit of gratitude, and I’m not even trying to climb out.

Be A Researcher

Happy New Year!

If you’re a teacher like me, you probably measure your years from September to June and everything else as summers. And so, when I say, “Happy New Year”, what I mean is more, “Are your lesson plans ready for tomorrow?”

I like this first day back from break, not just because I get a free Starbucks the whole month of January, but more because I get to see the smiles from the kids, who although they look tired and wanted to sleep more, are loud with back from Christmas excitement for friends and yes their teachers too.

I spent time, okay really about two complete days, grading research notes during break. Please, do not feel bad for me; I was at Starbucks, with their notes and my best friend. I had nowhere else to be, and nothing better to do than reflect. For three days before break, my students were in the library, and although I was very busy helping this student and that student, in general, the kids were down there on their own to research, reorganize, and keep going. We even made a wall chart about what researchers look like before we went down. It said:

 Be A Researcher

  • Focus
    • specific goals           
    • write down just the information you need
  • Write things down
    • in a planned, organized way
  • Use many sources
    • Internet, books, magazines, people, movies
  • Re-adjust when things don’t go as planned
  • Keep track of sources and Evaluate them for validity

In General, it looks like my kids did just that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got some copied lists of facts that take up three pages i.e., Sports Team & Trophy Year OR Olympic Medal Winner and Year/Sport. I’ve also got some kids who completely copied text, Word for Word— hello small group instruction. But for most of them, it seems like they actually re-adjusted and found information on topics ranging from Mayan Culture to Miley Cyrus and beyond (if there is beyond on that one).

In the weeks to come, the kids and I will be studying good nonfiction writing and attempting to create interesting Feature Articles, wish us luck and focus, and perhaps a hint of learning too.

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a note to the joy thieves

At the end of the school year this year, I was on the receiving end of some nasty comments about teachers. A little bit of evil looks about the three months of “vacation” I was embarking on, and some useless comments about how I would be bored all day. And for the first time ever, I felt the need to keep my end of the year thoughts to myself, holding back on blogging and facebook, not announcing the end of the school year.

Some of those people with the looks and the comments, I thought they knew me. I thought they knew that I hadn’t taken a sick day at all this school year (not that I hadn’t been sick). I thought they knew that I pretty much worked all weekend long on school stuff. I thought they knew that when summer came, I would be working like crazy to amp up my curriculum.

It’s strange how words can hurt or cause someone to hold back. I’m sure if any of these people had really thought about who they were talking to, they might have chosen their words more carefully.

If you’re not a teacher, here are my suggestions on appropriate things to say to someone who is a teacher at the end of the school year, or just during the summer:

  1. Congratulations! Wow, I wish I had you as a teacher, those kids sure got lucky this year!
  2. Tell me about the one kid you’re really gonna miss this summer.
  3. Can I take you out one night to celebrate?
  4. Do you have any plans for the summer?
  5. I love how I get to see you more in the summer!
  6. If you’ve got any great books to read this summer, I’d like to read one with you!

It’s the heart of summer. And believe me, I’ve been doing a ton of teacher related stuff. Some of this has been in the pool, and you can be jealous of that as long as you would willingly read a 200 page book about whatever your profession is, take notes on it, and develop a system to incorporate it into your working day, during your time off (by the way, you’ll also have to buy that book with your own money).

My name is Rachel, and I love my job, even during the long months of September, October, November in which you feel blessed if I have enough time to like your Instagram photo. I am a teacher; I am happy about that; please don’t try to steal my joy.

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

I gave my yoga teacher the stink eye.

I gave my yoga teacher the stink eye.

This is a true confession. I wish I could tell you I only ever did it once. Truly, I break out the stink eye once or twice a class at least. Usually right around the time when the instructor mentions how one day this move will help me be able to do a headstand, or one day I’ll just be able to hold this pose (see two seconds of it causing intense pain and certain death) for a very long time.

The other members of my family received a healthy dose of genetic disposition toward anything athletic and sweating. As for me, well, I’d rather not.

So I’ve found yoga, and I love it for its lack of competitive nature, for the fact that I don’t feel like anyone is looking at me, and for those few minutes of shavasana at the end, wherein I am forced to be gloriously still. After 28 years, I’ve found something athletic that I actually enjoy.

My sweet, gentle, amazing instructor April from Human Breathing, who opened up this whole new world of yoga to me, does not deserve the stink eye, because I simply love everything about how and what she teaches. But, I hope she catches it every now and then.

You see “the stink eye” is something I’ve received a few times myself. Try telling thirty 14-year-olds that they need to read a book (at least one) over spring break. Stink eye(s). Try telling thirty 14-year-olds that you’re in love with their writing, but we are going to revise it again, for the fifteenth time. Stink eye(s).  Just suggest to that same group, that the very skill that they are learning (and struggling with) right now, will soon be mixed with another new skill. Stinker.

But I’ve been teaching long enough to know that “the stink eye” doesn’t have anything to do with not liking you; it doesn’t even have anything to do with not trusting you. Nope. The stink eye, in yoga and in my classroom, means this is really hard right now, and what you’re talking about sounds even harder, but I trust you, so I’m throwing you the stink eye and begging you to help me a whole ton along the way.

So students, send your stink eyes my way, let me know you’re with me, I promise you can do it, and maybe at the end of it, you’ll even get your moment of shavasana.

(April, I promise to try to bit more grown up about giving you the stink eye, and believing that one day my legs-up-the-wall will result in a headstand).\

Fabulous Friday

Last Friday I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to King of Prussia to hear Dr. Richard Allington speak about “Summer slide”. To say it was a fabulous Friday morning is not nearly enough, what a treat.
Dr. Allington is one of the most practical, straight talking researchers in education. He spends his career researching and proving the effectiveness of practices that should be considered common sense. Give kids books that they want to read, give them time and support to read, and talk to them about their reading. Wouldn’t we all love to be in a place where that could happen everyday…kids could choose from a massive variety of high interest books, have the time to sit and read them, and then have an adult or group of peers to talk to about the book. If some kids were not reading “on level” there would be books that they were able to read and those books would be just as interesting as any other book. No one would be in a “program”, or working on skill and drill practice so that one day they would be able to read the books.
Dr. Allington’s message on Friday left me with a smile on my face and the motivation to keep on the path, we are working to do the right thing for kids and there are quite a few of us out there who know it.

Worth. It.

At 4:45am my iPhone lights up, with the appropriately named “blues” ringtone going off in the background. At that time of the morning, I am desperate for anything but getting out of my bed. Even if I think about going back to sleep, I can’t. I can’t go back to sleep because I am a teacher, and waking moments are filled with “What will I do next?” lists that inevitably propel me forward.

Soon I am ready for my ride to work; currently, I’m listening to the audio book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I have found it a necessity that I practice what I preach, and so I’m reading, okay sometimes listening, books whenever I find a chance. The only break from this is when I stop at my local Starbucks, for my daily cup of love, Grande Pike with soy. When I pull into the parking lot, I’m the first one there, I let the last few lines of dialogue spill from the author, as I put my coat back on, and look around the car to see how many bags I’ll have to carry in today. Seven. Not too bad. I can carry them all in one trip.

I walk down the quiet hallways reminding myself of what’s important about today. Today I will teach them how to talk, about analyzing good argument writing. I’ll remind them that good writers are good readers and good talkers. And I’ll give them lines to say to each other such as: “So what I think you’re saying is . . .”, “The evidence we have for that is . . .?”, and “Isn’t the real issue here . . .?”. As I unlock the door, I promise myself to make a wall chart with them, I want them to see this language written down, to have it as a safety net, if they forget what to say.

As I unpack my bags, I’m visualizing this chart in my head, wishing that someone had taught me in middle school to speak eloquently in an argument. I think about the Common Core, and the standards I know I’ll be hitting today—8.W.9 & 8.R.9 (for Christmas break this year, I tried to memorize these standards, I know them well, but sometimes I have to keep telling myself them in order to make sure I’m doing it right). I wonder what colors I should use and how big I should make it, and still have the chart be useful. I run through my words in my head. I want to say it right the first time; this lesson is important to us.IMG_2945

Soon I am sipping my coffee, reading through my e-mails, answering a few, and checking to make sure I know what page a few of my favorite kids should be on in their independent reading books. When the bell goes off for the kids to enter the building, I am almost always surprised. I could have used more time. The kids are always quiet as they enter the building at 7:25am; it’s like they know the teachers are just waking up too. And then, like that, the day begins. Students tell me of their athletic victories the night before, compliment me on my curly hair, and ask me wide eyed once again, “What are we going to do today, Miss Smith?”

Take over the world.

This job is not easy. This morning routine is not easy. But believe me, it is worth every second of it. When I see my students two years later and they tell me, “Whenever I get upset, I write—remember how you taught us that?” Or when the student in front of me says, “I stayed up so late, because I couldn’t stop reading my book!” Or better yet, when in the middle of the standards, and the grading, and the keeping on top of it, you get to watch a kid stepping into who they will become. It is worth it.

There are plenty of things wrong with the teaching field. Plenty of things to complain about. But, if you’re teaching and you’re stuck there, in the complaint field— that’s too hard, too much, too little—  I’m begging you step back and embrace why you’re here or get out. These kids need the focused, hard working you, who recognizes the beauty in the craft, who recognizes that people are worth it.

Our kids are worth it.

With love,

ahappyteacher

Letters from my kids: True Admissions

I love letters, especially letters that are from the heart. It’s doubly good if they are handwritten.

 

I’m not gonna lie this year’s group of kids loved writing letters. They wrote letters to me all year long. But, end of the year letters, oh they’re my favorite, there is so much to reflect on . . . and it gives me one last chance to hear each of their sweet voices before another teacher steals them away.

 

And so I’d like to share these with you, because I think it’s okay with them. Here’s a few lines from the letters that let me know I might be doing this teaching thing right. . . (Disclaimer: I could have typed many many more of these, but each paragraph is from a different kid and well, I think you’ll get the point.)

 

 

Dear Miss Smith aka Rachel, Smidty, RSmidty, the teacher that watches Harry Potter with students ect . . .

This letter is written on the last blank salvageable page in my journal! So this letter is nothing short of important to me, as I’m sure it is to you. This letter will probably not feature many writing strategies and/or sentence patterns, but this letter is from the heart.

I’m not gonna lie, coming into this year I thought I was going to HATE your class. I didn’t like writing, reading, or Language Arts in general. I came into your class with a chip on my shoulder, because I honestly thought all I was gonna do was be miserable. But then you opened my eyes to a different type of writing, not writing to boring prompts, but what we wanted to write about. I can’t thank you enough for that . . .

I enjoyed how you don’t believe in writing prompts and that helped me with my style. It gave me a chance to really find what and how I like writing. I will admit I didn’t like writing everyday, but when I started realizing I actually could write good things, I became proud of all my writing! It shows me how I grew as a student. Thanks for teaching me to be me.

The atmosphere of the room was great. Having the time to work with our partners really helped me engage in my writing. I also liked how you let us use our iPods in class to concentrate on our work. Last but not least, I loved the lights off and having your lamps on.

And I still remember when you gave me The Maze Runner and I was obsessed with reading. To be honest, before I read that book, I used to open a book and pretend to read, but you got me into it; you’re the best.

One of the most helpful things was to listen to your words. Any teacher could tell you to write, but you showed us how (with amazing examples from you). I also love how you put feeling into your writing or when you read a story.

Before I walked into your classroom, reading and writing was pretty much the death of me. By the middle of September, I found myself staying up late, just to finish my book. You taught me so many things I’ll never forget. I learned that the semicolon is used for more than just the winky face, if you want something chase after it cause you never know what will happen, and that FANBOYS are awesome.

But one of the most important things that has come out of this year is becoming a writer. A real writer.

 

Those are my kids. Oh how we learned. And oh how much it makes me smile that they admit it . . .

Guest Blog: See Ya Later, Not Goodbye

The following is a letter my students received from Evan in their last days of school. Evan came alongside us for the journey this year, to learn and write with my kids. However, as you might have learned to expect from my classroom, it became so much more. I cannot thank Evan enough for his heart for my kids, for slowing down his crazy schedule to let fourteen-year-olds know they are worth being invested in, and for reminding me when days got rough, that I have the best job on earth. Thank you Evan.

I’ll just add that if you’re a teacher, you need to read this. Evan has no training in education aside from what little I’ve been able to cram into his brain, but look at his passion, and look at his recognition of your hardwork. Evan may not be a teacher, but we can all learn something from him.


 

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

And so we’ve reached the end of another milestone, not just for the year, but for the hallways and the classrooms that these students have come to recognize for fun as much as for learning. A four-year eternity that holds the pivot point from child to young adult. A microcosm of time that’s forged friendships, and challenged a few— a first handhold and a breakup too. It was the time when tastes were made, from characters in books that we’ll continue to grow with, to questionable fashion trends, we’ll laugh at in years. But for all these moments big and small, parents, teachers, and students learn to scrapbook the good, and just scrap the bad, proceeding towards a future filled with as much frightening uncertainty as soaring possibility.

Parting is sorrow.

For as much as I want to explain to these students that this period of time is nothing more than a blip on the radar, a tiny bite of what great is to come, I can’t help but not take my own advice. I’m overwhelmed with a sadness that’s only possible once you part ways with an experience that has molded you into a person you never knew you were capable of being. I felt like a best friend, someone that shared experiences with equally wide eyes. I felt like a trail guide, a reassuring voice that calmed fears. I felt like a parent too, not a day went by that I didn’t ask Miss Smith how each class went. I got to learn their names, their personalities, and their strengths. Rooting them on from the sidelines, I cheered when they did great, and wanted desperately to help when they tripped. I felt invested in them, because they showed me it was worth it. Lastly, I felt like an educator. In a building that houses brilliant teachers and staff, I’m proud to know I touched a fraction of the greatness they work resiliently to maintain year after year. I’ve realized my normal life is a break compared to the extensive work they put in 365 days a year, and to temporarily walk the halls for a few days makes me feel nothing short of grateful.

Remembering is sweet.

But it will be the great times that I choose the remember, and for all that leaves me, and us, in this coming week, the unbelievable adventure we all shared will always flood my head and heart with happiness whenever I reflect. Basking (and getting burnt) under a May afternoon’s sun, dancing to Taylor Swift from the speakers of a supercar that, for a brief moment, it felt like we owned. Getting to work with you as a class, a group, and individuals, hearing your stories and trying to help; hearing your stories and knowing I couldn’t, because you were just fine. I broke through the barriers of publicly discussing and critiquing my work, because needing help and feeling vulnerable is hard but crucial, and in turn you felt confident to share your work, because through admitting a fear we shared together, our writing (and ourselves) grew. Videos I loved to make, relationships I’ll always have, and a chance to take back the school dance I never had— this single year at Twin Valley makes the other 25 in my life kinda’ bland.

Thank you.

Thank you for embracing my work and I. For opening yourselves up to my challenge, and raising a bar I wasn’t sure could even be touched. You’ve surpassed what I thought an 8th grade class could accomplish. From the bonds and friendships, to the personalities and dedication, my time with you has meant the world. And so if parting is sweet sorrow, then I’ll hardly consider this goodbye. I’m optimistic that your stories will grow big, and I’ll see them again someday. Be it through Miss Smith, a local paper, or at a McLaren dealership— I’ll see you. And when things get rough, I’ll be there in memory or simply a few cities away. So this isn’t goodbye, more like a see ya later. To me, that thought is so much sweeter.

—Evan W.

8th Grade Formal— PhotoBooth

 

Dear Ella,

Lessons in teaching.

When your brother’s wife is having a baby and you’re in a room full of fourteen-year-olds, it’s totally okay to lose your teacher cool and feel kinda’ weepy. They love the drama anyway.

Ella Mae Smith was born on December 19, 2011 while I was teaching block three. This happyteacher is now ahappyaunt; want to see perfection? Snuggle up to Ella Mae while she takes a nap. Her little baby sounds and cutie little eyebrow arches will melt your heart before you know what hit you.

And then maybe because I’m a teacher, no probably because I’m a writer I decided that in these early days of her life, the best gift I could give to Miss Ella is a letter— writing, words that she can savor when she’s older and not sleeping so much. And so . . .

Dear Ella,

I love everything about you. I expected that, but I didn’t expect that you would take my breath away. I didn’t expect that with every coo and sigh you make, my heart would flutter. But, it does.

I didn’t expect that your Dad would turn into mush every time he sees you. I mean I expected it sometimes, but I’m telling you he’s pretty much always mush these days. I get a text message picture of you almost every day from him; proud doesn’t even begin to explain how he feels about you.

And your Mom, I didn’t expect to catch her staring at you in the middle of conversations. But it’s hard to focus on anything when you’re around.

Sometimes things happen the opposite of what you expect, but that’s okay. With you, it’s been more than okay, and that’s how the best stories are written—with unexpected feelings and jumps and slows in the road. And already you’re there, right at the very beginning of your life, already I know your story is gonna be good.

So Ella, I hope you pause when life doesn’t meet your expectations. I hope that little things take your breath away and make your heart flutter. I can’t wait to hear your stories and walk with you through life like only an Aunt can.

One thing I can promise you, you’ll never have to do anything more to have my love or your parents love— you’re loved because you’re you; you’re ours.

I love you Ella!— Aunt Rachel