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

Writerly Life

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 . . .

Writerly Life

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


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.
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 Writerly Life Writing

happy kid notes


Taking Time out to Reflect

I’ve been teaching full time for six years; I love my job more now than I ever have. If you had told me that when I was twenty years old walking into my first class as Drew McCorkell’s support teacher, I would have laughed in your face. As things progress they tend to get mundane, or routine at the least. But at six years in, I don’t think I will ever use those words to describe my job or my heart for it.

This morning I finally sat down with the bags. I’d like to think all teachers have this day or this time where you sit down and unpack all that you deemed worthy of bringing home for the summer. For me, it usually takes a week or so to motivate myself to do it. Probably mostly because I have no idea where I’ll put all that stuff for the summer, but also in part because I know I’ll start seeing my kids in those bags and in the beginning I’m just not ready too sad for that.

And then I found the folders, labeled with their blocks, containing handwritten feedback happy kid notes from my students writers. Soon the floor was covered in their writing, and the tissue box was sitting next to me.  Of all the assignments I give in a typical year, this one is the most selfish. I know that; I don’t care. I tell them to write me, what they loved and what they hated about the year so that I would know what to change and what to keep—then I throw onto the end, add in anything else you want to tell me, no rules at all.

This year’s end result were notesfromhappystudents, and of course since I am ahappyteacher I couldn’t have been more pleased or moved by the power of their words. If you’ve never had your students write you notes, if you’ve never written someone a note of encouragement, sit down—write—it breathes life into unspoken truths.

So I’m going to leave you today with a unique note written by one of my writers— she caught me off guard with this style—she had tears in my eyes before the first comma, because in the end, each year is like its own fairy tale, my childhood dreaming, my adult reality.


Dear Miss Smith,

Once upon a time, there was a teacher who cared about her class. She taught from her heart and her mind was so connected to them, it was so unreal. She made them feel so safe and secure, as if they could never get hurt. Her class was like a big sanctuary of secrets. Only her students knew what was up.

She showed them videos of what her neighbors had to say, and videos of poets who inspired their eyes word by word. Like someone who had them all brainwashed. Only for the good. Because truly they were the stars. The ones shining above the rest. Each and every day.

And they glistened in her eyes as she watched them grow and become writers instead of kids who scribbled their minds across a blank page. She crafted them. She molded her students into better people inside and out of the classroom. She told them continuously, over and over, like a broken record, that they were special. That they could easily make a difference in this world. They didn’t believe her at first. But now they do. And some of them believe in themselves. All because she dedicated her heart to them and continued to love them no matter what the circumstances were. Feeling like they were on top of the world, this class loved her back.

So once upon a time . . .

This unforgettable teacher was you. And those crazy students . . . well . . . they were us.

Yeah . . .

It was definitely a wild adventure . . . and honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way either.




Writerly Life

Guest Blogger- Amy Petrilla- Last Days Journal

Below, Amy Petrilla, guest blogger and amazing teacher, shares her heart with you as she bravely faces her last days of school this year. Feel free to give her feedback below; I’m sure she’ll love it!

Last Days at McVey


“If you can advocate for something- ANYTHING- do it! There are so many who cannot.” A couple years ago, those were the words that a parent shared with my graduate class. Today, I spin the wheels of the Hot Wheels car that was passed out to us by that parent’s son (who has autism), and the words echo through my mind.  Faces, lives, SOULS, flash before my eyes.

This is my fifth year teaching and somehow it is by far the hardest year to say goodbye to my students and their families. Perhaps this is because not only are some students moving on to new districts, but also I am moving on to a new school. Perhaps “the end” is so tough this year because my co-teacher and I worked so well together.  Or perhaps I am still recuperating from proudly crying and watching three of my boys graduate from kindergarten and do an amazing job on stage (when at the beginning of the year they would have been terrified). I could keep guessing and adding in factors- but this afternoon during my drive home, in tears, I realize why I’ve become so emotional.

This is the year that I wrestled and struggled with special education, its politics, and my own “talents” and knowledge. I want to proclaim this and throw down an anchor for this to be known. This is the year in which my heart and soul went through a battle- and I came out on the other side knowing exactly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why I do what I do. This is who I am. I AM A TEACHER. And I am an advocate. When the seasons and circles of life continue and September rolls around again, I will re-read this journal.  Why? Because I will be so unbelievably stressed! But from this day forward I will remind myself that today- though it may bring tears- will always come. I will always be SO proud of my little guys. And certain parents’ words of thanks and appreciation will wonderfully pierce me to my core.

Teachers are supposed to change students’ lives and drive them towards a direction that causes them to be who they are truly meant to be- even when no one else believes in this. However, today, I say THANK YOU to my students and their families who have given me a purpose. Without them, I’d be lost. When I feel discouraged, I will remember to keep pressing forward because my students have shaped me and helped me be who I am truly meant to be. I can only continue to return the favor and strive to be their voice- encouraging them and their families along the way. I am more than a teacher. I am an advocate- and I will proclaim to my students and the world around them about how important and loved they are until I take my very last breath.

If you’re reading this, I urge you to pursue YOUR passions. Dig deep inside and you will find it.  It is who you were created to be- and somewhere out there, a group is waiting for you to shape and love. Speak up for the voices that cannot speak. Hear for the ears that do not hear, and move for those who are immobilized.  How could you do anything less?