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.


Writerly Life

Why I Write

Here at we celebrate writing. We write with voice. We write with passion. We break rules and embrace risks. We realize that writing captures the finite and gives it depth. We write.

I write.

I write to tell you that I’m more than impressed with who you are and what you’re doing. Because I need to tell you, I’ve believed in you all along.

I write because somewhere along the line everything got too hard for me and the rhythm of words was enough to draw me back to reality.

I write for change and the beauty that lies within it. I write for the mundane and the ordinary, because I believe a dandelion is a flower.

I write to dream further than my talk, to amplify what I believe in and silence the lies that drown my thoughts.

I write for you to know me; I’m not average; I’m working toward extraordinary, but I’m not there yet.

I write because I’ve been caught off-guard and unaware, because I can’t afford to risk losing today for tomorrow.

I write with the risk of permanence, letting you know I’m for real and I’m not going away.

Writerly Life

Promise, Possibility, and Potential.

It’s September. I’ve officially dropped off the social map. If you’ve seen me in the past three weeks it’s because you’re one of my students or coworkers . . . or really lucky.

I’ve overheard teachers saying:

 “I went to bed at 8pm last night.”

“Everyday my throat is killing me by noon.”

“I’ve been to Staples three times today.”

Or maybe that’s just me, saying those things. That’s another thing about September, I don’t remember who I’ve said what to, because everything I say, I say multiple times.

It’s exhausting at best. I want to blog more often; I want to read more often, but I can barely keep my eyes open once I reach the front door to my house.

Yet, for all the exhaustion, September holds its own romance. New routines are established, friendships are formed, the air turns cool, and my classroom becomes my favorite place to be.

We’re only halfway through September, I don’t want to label it exhaustion— it’s just not fair to say that’s what I get from September. At halfway through, I’m labeling September: Promise, Possibility, and Potential— and I’m holding onto that till October.

Classroom Writerly Life Writing

if your mom is a teacher . . .

Sometimes when I’m generating small moment story ideas with my students, we use the strategy: People, Places, Stories. We think of places and people and then list the stories we have with them. Walking back through the door of Benchmark this week, I was flooded with memories; I could sketch out the grounds of this place and provide story after story, from year after year of my life.

I remember the joy I found in the art room with Carol, she would set me loose with clay or markers and let me create to my hearts content, in the little smelly room at the end of the hall.

I remember the mezzanine, up the scary stairs, and the yellow plastic chair that I sat on when they did summer school testing for me. I was certain I had read every one of the words right on the list, and I do remember them being quite proud of me (looking at my leveled color in the library today, I’m fearful I may not have been as accurate as I thought).

I remember the weeks before school started, having the whole playground to myself and how I could sing really really loud on the swings without anyone (see older brother) teasing me.

I remember the lunchroom, where I dreamed and dreamed that Dr.M might cast me to be in, “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.”

I remember Mr.Reichart letting me keep score for the kids in gym class, and I remember always messing up the score. And how I thought I would never make it to the top when I climbed the rock wall, and I almost started to cry at the bottom, but my brother was there telling me I could.

This week, I’ve been watching Megan Wonderland’s amazing daughter, Kayla, run in and out from camp with her perfectly sweet smile. I keep thinking of the adventures she’ll have in this place— I keep thinking of what it was like for me to grow up with a teacher as mom.

And I want to whisper to Kayla, “Isn’t it perfect, this place? How many books, and supplies, and places to hide, and isn’t it perfect how the middle schoolers love you the best because they know your mom?”

Sometimes it’s hard to grow up as a kid when your mom’s a teacher— they grade papers, plan lessons, and read books— all the time. Sometimes you have to share your mom’s heart with other kids, because they need extra love and it’s your mom’s job to do it. And there are times in the year when she’ll be so exhausted from kids or parents that she’ll come home and not really want to play with you, or she’ll use the scary teacher voice on you.

But when your mom’s a teacher, all your storybooks come alive cause her voices can’t be beat. And when your mom’s a teacher you can curl up in her lap longer cause she has to stay still to grade those papers. When your mom’s a teacher she knows how to play and be silly better than boring grown-up moms. Mostly, it’s perfect when your mom’s a teacher, because you learn that even though school might be hard for you—you get to run through the halls of this school barefoot and nobody cares.

If your mom’s not a teacher, you probably missed out. If you’re a teacher and raising kids, I’m impressed, but I also want to tell you, as the kid of a teacher, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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?

Writerly Life

Senior Year English- Can’t Wait

When you look back on your high school year was senior year English a real highlight for you?  Probably not.  I remember vocabulary workbooks, weekly themes, reading a whole-class novel (or not reading it) and talking it to death during class.  I am certain that there was not much happening that connected to “real life”.  Thankfully for some of next years seniors that will not be the scenario….

I just read a new curriculum for 12th grade english, written by a highschool english teacher in my school district and it is so exciting I want to go back to highschool and take the course!  The title is Literature and Media Literacy and the class will examine just that; how literature, current issues and the media interact to effect society.  Mentor text will be used and the teacher will model her own thinking about an issue.  Reading, research and writing will be constant as students examine literature and various types of media pertaining to an issue of interest to them. 

Imagine, giving high school seniors the respect and responsibility to develop their own research questions, there own purpose for reading….I think there are a lot of lucky seniors out there who will have much better memories of their English class.

Classroom Writerly Life Writing

breaking silence— part 3

As a teacher and natural organizer, I love and maybe even crave structure. It makes me feel safe and lets me know what to expect. A predictable mealtime, the order I put hair products into my untamable curls (prep, cream, mouse, shine), dentist appointments six months apart on the 14th of August & February—this is not normal, but at least I’m upfront about it?

Needless to say, when we started to analyze the structure of memoirs, I was both happy and nervous to hear that not every story follows the “plot diagram” we teachers love to present to our students. Plot diagrams, they’re easy to teach, but they easily fall apart in the face of real literature. Not every story is as neatly packaged as I would like it to be, but that’s the beauty of a story—of life—inviting people in journeying together in the unstructured uncertainty of at all.

But sometimes we can use a little direction, from someone who has done it before, someone willing to lead the way (in this case a published author). So, in looking at short sections from mentor texts, we formed maps—short little diagrams of a craft moves.

From one text we found a string of pearls, —o—o—o—o—o—o— Short and beautiful moments of life held together with a common theme.

From another a series of events story told, A–>B–>C–>D

And from yet another, “Quotes”+ Reflection–> “Quotes” + Reflection

There were more texts, more patterns, and a room full of teachers looking from above at a text and mapping it out however they saw fit. Just seeing a pattern helped me to see purposeful craft moves that I could make, because even though my story wasn’t exactly the same, there was still much to learn.

The structure gave me something to hold onto, got me out of feeling so stuck in my writing, so while the reflecting was hard, it had a place in my story and I would have to go there to make the piece effective.

I wrote all that to say a few things:

  1. Wow, the impact of just a few carefully chosen mentor texts.
  2. Imagine the power of letting students create their own map & follow it.
  3. Being teachable— in writing, in reflecting, in journeying—Beauty.
Writerly Life

Teacher on Vacation

I spent this past week with my family at my parent’s beach house.  It was time filled with the expected beach activities; boogie-boarding, paddle ball, ice cream cones, and all of the rest.  We also did something a little bit different, something that I told my kids not every kid is lucky enough to do on their summer vacations, we wrote in our notebooks!  You know by now that my 11 year old eats this up, she would write for hours each night, so time to sit and have everyone write is her beach dream.  The seven and three year old go along because this is just what their zany mom does, my eight year old nephew took some convincing.  He is a very typical, active, fast moving, eight year old boy who feels that summer means “No School Stuff”.  Now didn’t he know he was with Aunt Stacy?

I had so many generating ideas from my few days with Mark Overmeyer I couildn’t wait to try them out, and what better place to gather your ideas than at the beach.  I told the more resistant members of the family that they were going to help me with some school “experiments” (eight year old boys love the word experiment, they think something may blow up!).  We started the first night with drawing a map of one place you had been that day.  Everyone got into this, comparing their maps and what they remembered about the same places.  From there we pied one item or place on the map and talked about what we remembered about it, the talk then became what you write about. 

 It was great!  The kids were talking, sharing ideas, getting excited to write their memories from the day.  I set the timer to write for 5 minutes, long enough to get some ideas down but not so long that a certain eight year old would be able to yell “I’m done” !  The pens, pencils, and crayons were moving like crazy, when the timer went off I even heard “wait, I need another minute”.  Everyone wanted to share what they wrote, what a special thing to watch, kids sharing their beach memories from that day, with huge smiles. 

Shouldn’t that be what every writing workshop in school is like?  Talking, sharing, writing, more talking, more writing, more sharing, all done with the smiles and enthusiasm of kids at the beach in the summer.  The past week of “writing experiments” is what I am going to keep in mind next year when I help teachers set up their writing workshop.  I want all kids to feel like writing can be “a day at the beach” (I know it is corny but I couldn’t help it)

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 . . .