Write On

imageI’ve been observing one of my students’ writing with interest since the beginning of the year.  J is a young man who arrived from Puerto Rico last spring with a whole lot to say…in Spanish.  He is a fireball of excitement and ideas, and it came as no surprise that his English language skills grew at lightning speed.  His enormous smile, constant chatter, and enthusiasm for…well, everything define his presence in our classroom.

Except writing.  His enthusiasm for writing is muted a bit by his struggle to get his many ideas on paper.  He is battling his still-somewhat limited control over English, his waterfall of ideas that must be expressed, and the fact that his pencil doesn’t move easily across the paper.  So it goes without saying that Writing Workshop isn’t the brightest spot in his day.

In the beginning of the year, it was a triumph to get one simple sentence on paper from J.  As he learned to use the word wall and tried to slow down his runaway thoughts, he added more and more to his paper.

Then came his Spanish phase.  He thought for some time that it might be easier to write in Spanish.  His enthusiasm for writing sparked again, and he started many new pieces.  But then those pieces stalled out as he struggled to find the Spanish words he wanted to use.  He was confused to find that it felt just as difficult to express himself in Spanish as it was in English.

Now J is finding a new balance by writing in both English and Spanish.  He is experimenting with words and trying his best to think, speak, and write what he wants to say.  He is using tools on the computer and in books.  He is finding a bit of success on paper, but the most dramatic change is coming in his confidence and his ability to take risks in his writing.  He is chasing the goal of writing “long and strong”, and he is determined to make it happen.

He might be the bravest writer in the room.




imageOn his first day, he stood frozen just outside the doorway to the classroom looking at the floor.  It’s hard to be the new kid.  Most kids in that position eventually come inside with a little encouragement, hang up their backpack and face the swarm of new classmates, but not this boy.  If anything, he retreated further into the hallway out of sight.

Curious kids swarmed closer, raising his anxiety even further.  I motioned them away and stepped between them and our new student.  Speaking softly, I asked him a few questions and finally asked if he would come inside.  Without looking up, he shook his head no.  I started to worry that this was turning into a bigger problem than I had thought.  I pointed out his desk so he could see where he was headed.  I showed him where he could hang his coat and bag.  Still no response, other than a dogged attempt to hold back tears while staring at the floor.  He was stuck…his parents had gone and left him in a strange place with an adult he didn’t know and a room full of children who were alternately staring and going about the business of classroom morning jobs.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to get him into the room, and once he was there I wasn’t sure he would stay.

I motioned over two of my boys.  “These kids are so kind.  You can tell because they smile at you and want to know you.  They will sit right by you in your group.”  The new boy peeked upward just for a moment.  And my kind, good-hearted boys took their cue and took right over.  They spoke gently to him and invited him in.  They walked him to the closet to hang his coat and then to his desk.  He sank quickly into his chair and put his head down, but he was in the room.  This was the first moment of him belonging to us.

Today was our (former) new boy’s eighth birthday.  He repeated this fact as many times as he could to us today.  His head held high, he came back to me again and again to show me his new Mario shirt and remind me that his mom was bringing cupcakes.  Several times throughout the day I heard kids wishing him a happy birthday and telling him how excited they were to share his treats.  They have amazing radar–they still know that he needs a whole lot of friendliness and encouragement around him.

He still stands in the doorway for just a minute every day, even though he’s been with us for more than a month.  He still needs that deep breath of bravery to transition from the quiet hallway to a room full of people.  But he knows now that he belongs with us in the room, and he knows that he is safe with our class.  I notice him throughout the day laughing with kids, reading with partners, showing his writing, and keeping his chin up.  He’s come a long way.

I’ll know he’s made it when he comes bounding into our classroom without a moment of hesitation.

My OLW for the year is CONNECT, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I need to connect with others, adults and kids alike–but J’s birthday today reminded me that I also have the job of teaching kids to connect as well.  It was a good lesson.

Choir Connections

imageMy OLW arrived as a challenge.  CONNECT.  It feels like a command sometimes, other times like an inspiration.  It is a call to action rather than a reminder.  I don’t think it’s going to be a word that gently nudges, but rather more like a word that pushes.

My first opportunity to make a choice based on CONNECT came a couple of Sundays ago in church.  My small congregation was host to a gospel choir from Chicago called Greater House of Prayer, or GHOP.  I was immediately interested because choral singing is just about my favorite experience ever, and I don’t miss a chance to hear a good choir.

As I sat waiting for the service to start, my mind wandered to conversations I had been reading on social media.  There are so many opinions, concerns, frustrations, joys, and ideas flying in every direction.  Strong voices making strong statements.  I read, but I don’t join in or respond.  (I know…CONNECT!  But I’m not there yet.). One of my fears is that in responding through text, my words might be misconstrued.  It’s disheartening to read all the anger and negativity in comment sections and I have no desire to open myself up to arguments like that.  Scary.  But yet I have things I want to say.  I  wondered if there was a better way.

The joyful, exuberant voices of the gospel choir soon cleared my head of all those troublesome thoughts and I was swept up into the emotions of praise right along with the rest of those in the room.  GHOP was amazing!  It took some effort, but even we solemn Presbyterians were swaying and clapping along with the music.

Then came a pivotal moment in the service.  We have the tradition of “Passing the Peace”, during which we greet each other and those around us.  In my church, we tend to stretch that out for a few minutes and roam around a few pews to shake hands with more people than are sitting within arms’ reach.  As we stood to pass the peace this time, several people made a dash for the front of the church and started pulling choir members right down the middle aisle.  The slightly startled choir soon got into the spirit and before long all the people in the church were clumped in the middle, greeting each other left and right.  We hugged, we reached, we shouted–I think our visitors definitely felt welcomed!  It was a huge bundle of CONNECT happening right around me.

And that was just the beginning.  After the service we had a luncheon (lasagna and jambalaya) and I had the chance to meet and talk with several women from the choir.  We had a great time talking about our love of music and singing together, but the conversation didn’t stop there.  After all, here were women living in downtown Chicago making CONNECTIONS with women living in small town-ish, rural-ish Iowa. We talked about the hard topics.  We talked about politics and racism.  We found a whole lot of unexpected common ground and a whole lot of talking points on the things that need to change.  We laughed together and reluctantly said good bye when the luncheon was over.

Social media is great for giving us the ability to interact with people around the country and around the world and opening important conversations.  But the chance to CONNECT in person is the kind of experience that changes hearts and brings people together.  My One Little Word proved to be just what I needed right off the bat.  So what’s next, CONNECT?  It could be something hard, or something unusual—but no doubt it will be worth it.   It’s going to be  a bit of a thrill ride this year with that word.

And check out GHOP on YouTube and Facebook.  That choir is AMAZING!  I shared their music (and my experience) with my students and I’ve had their CD playing in my car ever since.


Wordy Words

imageThe search for my One Little Word of 2018 was a little painful.  It started with complete vacancy of ideas.  I mean, an abyss.  Like–no clue.  Nothing sounded right, nothing felt helpful.  I even had a few vague feelings about what sentiment I wanted to express through a word, but no words seemed to match the feeling I had.  Frustration set in, then a little bit of panic as the days passed by with no progress.  I started looking for words everywhere.  I started finding words everywhere–but nothing was quite the right fit.  I started wondering if I should settle for something CLOSE just to be done with the search.  I started worrying that perhaps I had lost the ability to feel my One Little Word land in my mind with that magical certainty.  I felt desperate, disappointed, and on my way to hopeless.

So I turned to my last resort.  Oprah.  If there is one thing you should not do if you are searching for just one certain word to center yourself on for an entire year…it is to start listening to Oprah.  It seemed like a good idea at first, because Oprah has wise words.  Oprah DOES have wise words.  SO MANY WISE WORDS!  While in the car, I listened to episodes of Super Soul Sunday from Oprah’s podcast.  As the words flew past my ears, my head was whirling with ideas.  As soon as I tried to consider one word, four more sounded better.  I started punching the OFF button on the car radio in a desperate attempt to think through what I had just heard, almost sentence by sentence.  I was bombarded by millions of WORDS!  All of them unique.  Amazing.  Profound.

But none of them were mine.

Finally I found the sense to stop listening to the podcast.  I put it to rest.  I decided not to decide.  I stopped worrying about it.  And then (of course), as always happens in cases of wisdom or magic…it found me.  And I recognized it right away.  And from that point on, I did not question it as I had questioned every single other word that had occurred to me.  I just started thinking about how that word was going to challenge and change me for 2018.

My One Little Word is CONNECT.  There are some holes in my life that need connection and re-connection, and I’m going to have to work on it.  I need to start saying “yes” to things when I usually say “no”.  I knew right away how many ways this word is going to influence my thinking.

I already tried it out, with good success.  That story will come next week. 😀

In the meantime, I am very glad for Two Writing Teachers and SOL Tuesdays because it is a very joyful place to CONNECT.  Thanks for reading!

One Little Word…or Too

imageIt’s that time of year.  New Year Resolutions are flying in the air, and many (like me) are also considering the One Little Word that they will choose to shape their thinking for the year.  I’m trying to land on the right word for me, but it’s not coming very easily.  There are good reasons to choose words that will push me forward to actually DO things that I think about doing–progress, accomplish, build.  There are good reasons to choose more introspective words that will prompt me to look inward and work on personal struggles–listen, faith, grow.  And there are many good reasons to choose a word that inspires me to continue advocating for my students, my classroom, my job, and my country–courage, resist, speak.  I have no idea how to choose just one!  So…I’m not going to.  Not yet, anyway.

Instead, let’s talk about ANOTHER little word.  What is the deal with “too”?  I’m seeing example after example of friends and strangers writing “to” when they mean “too”.  I don’t usually go around correcting people’s grammar (even though I’m a TEACHER)–but this seems to be escalating!  Is it trendy to say you are “to tired” or that you “stayed up to late”?  Because sometimes I am slow to figure out what is actually trendy.  It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the whole “my bad” thing.  I’ll be a little relieved if it’s suddenly a trendy thing, because then there is a reason and it isn’t just a wave of gram-nesia (grammar-amnesia, lol).  And I can text “Do u want to meet up” just like anyone else and not be bothered. But do people really not remember that there are three ways to spell “to”?  I’m a little worried about this one.  Maybe all the students who lived through DOL are now unleashed on social media.  That might explain some of it, but it seems to be contagious.  I want to randomly tweet, or post, or even text “tooooooooo” just to put some extra “o’s” in the world to make up for all those that are missing from people’s “too”!   So I want TO know about TOO.  Does it make you seem TOO cool to write that it is TO cool?  Should I shrug it off as another weird grammar fad?  Or do I need to starting giving out extra o’s to try and turn the tide?  I am TOO annoyed for my own good.

In the meantime, I’ll keep watch for my One Little Word to land and take root for 2018.  I hope it doesn’t take TOO much longer!  😀


Rodent Removal

imageMy second graders are obsessed with tongue twisters.  I’m not sure how this started, but I suspect one of them found a joke book in the library with some included.  At any rate, it’s become the class craze.

There are lots of positives about their new mania.  They are VERY engaged with print.  They are researching and delighting in their findings every time they discover a new tongue twister.  They are sharing books, sharing laughter, and having contests to see who can say it faster.

At the same time, our classroom is filled with a constant undercurrent of “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” It never stops.  And now they’ve developed variations on it that make no sense, which is a scream for them and a different kind of scream for me.  I don’t care how much wood the woodchuck chucks, and I’m more than ready for them to stop asking me!  They jump out at me at the oddest times asking about the woodchuck and his chucking.  They surround me at recess.  They leave notes on my desk.

The thing is, woodchucks don’t chuck wood!  They don’t want to.  They just want to be woodchucks.  Why is this tongue twister a question that can never be answered? What is this insanity?  My ELL students and I do not understand why they must know the answer to this question that isn’t even really a question.  Can you imagine trying to explain to a little English learner what this odd little animal is that they speak of, or what it is or is NOT trying to do with a stack of wood?  And why?  I envy my new little girl who has just arrived from El Salvador and doesn’t understand a word we say yet–I think she must have great oblivious peace in the midst of the swirl of chucking.  Either that, or they’re going to teach her to speak in tongue twisters.  Good grief.

I’ve tried to change the tune over to Peter Piper and his pickled peppers and even Susie with her seashore–but they are relentless with the woodchuck.  In desperation today I quietly started singing “Jingle Bells” because I knew they wouldn’t be able to resist singing along.  There are NO woodchucks dashing through the snow.

The festive diversion didn’t work for very long.  I’ve printed lists of new tongue twisters for them.  I’ve tried to threaten extermination of the woodchuck, but I know tomorrow morning as the kids walk through the door, they will be chucking wood all the way.

Maybe the woodchuck will lose its steam over winter break…one can hope.  In the meantime, I’m bringing earplugs and hiding the joke books tomorrow.

Cooking Up Trouble

imageI’m not really a cook.  I eat…I’m good at that.  But as far as putting food things together and making them come out right, well, that doesn’t come easily.

I am bringing things to Thanksgiving this year.  Not fancy things, just filler things.  My mom went easy on me and asked me to bring caramel corn and green grapes that are made to look like little acorns.  I pulled the caramel corn recipe off without too much trouble, but tonight it was time to assemble the grape-acorns.

It isn’t so much a recipe as a set of simple directions.  It seemed straightforward.  Melt caramel with a little cream, crush some peanuts, dip the grape in the caramel and coat that dipped part in the crushed peanuts.  But as always when I try to do such a thing, I had a lot of questions, and more than a little unanticipated difficulty.

What is the best way to melt the caramel?  Will that work in the microwave?

Is the cream supposed to look like that?

How do you get the little toothpick to STAY in the grape?

But the worst trouble came with crushing the peanuts.  I put them in a baggie and gave it a try pushing and then whacking with a big spoon.  Nope.  I looked around my kitchen for heavy things.  A frying pan to smash them?  A heavy glass bottle to roll over them like a rolling pin?  I tried all sorts of things.  But every time I held the baggie up for inspection, there was peanut dust, some fragments, and mainly pieces that looked completely untouched.  I socked the baggie a few times against the counter.  I put it under a big book and sat on it.  I even put the bag on the floor and walked on it a few dozen times–again with little success.

(Full disclosure…I considered backing over it with my car.  Don’t tell my mom.)

Finally I decided that the little grape acorns were going to be coated with peanut chunks instead of crushed peanuts, which immediately cheered me up.  Because I definitely had chunks.  I melted my caramel and started dipping and coating.

After I did all I could stand to do (which took about ten excruciating minutes), I texted my mom and asked how many grape-acorns were enough.  She said 18 would be great, which was fantastic because I had already done 24.  I told her I would do 30, and I made it to 27 before I gave up.

I hope the kiddos at Thanksgiving dinner like the little grape-acorns.  I hope they eat them quickly before anyone looks too closely at them.  I’ll probably leave them in the car and then smuggle them into the house at the last minute.  I do have a nice feeling of accomplishment and pride that I am contributing a little bit to the dinner.  I’m not too worried that this is going to lead to further requests, however.  I’m pretty sure that after this my main Thanksgiving job will go back to keeping the kids busy while the adults do things with the food.  I am MUCH better at that!

Also, I really hope my mom doesn’t read about all of this until AFTER dinner Thursday…