Sunday, August 2, 2015

The start of a new year - breaking the ice.

Tomorrow is the official start of the 2015-2016 school year.  Right now, at this unique moment, anything is possible this year -- all goals are within our grasp.  With the right mindset, the potential is astounding.

There are many small things that I do during the first week of school that pave the way to our struggles and successes along the way.  First, I believe that every child is important.  Every opportunity is one from which we can learn.  Second, I have to teach my students to believe in the same ideas.

Below is a quick snapshot of some of the things I do:

I always begin the year with pictures.  I bring my digital camera, and work quickly through the room on one of the first three days to capture every student.  I usually have them approve quickly and move on -- there are several ways I use these photos.
     1.  A copy goes up on the bulletin board in the front of the room.  After all, in our homes we keep pictures of our family, my school family deserve the same respect.  Being a member of the class earns you family status.  I add additional photos throughout the year, but kids are drawn to their pictures all year long.  I love the conversations we have centered around the photos.
     2.  The pictures are used to create flashcards for me.  This helps me learn the name of each child and 1-2 important facts that I learn about them from the first three days.  Not only does it build rapport when students realize that I care about the things they think are important, but it helps later in the year when I have a guest teacher.  It gives the guest teacher an immediate visual.  Most of them really appreciate it.
     3.  A copy of the picture goes on our first project.  All 8th grade ELA teachers have the students write an "I Am" poem about themselves.  After instruction, they write an "Eloquent I Am" poem which has the same meaning, but none of the same words.

"I Am" Poem
As mentioned in the picture section, students are asked to write an "I Am" poem.  Not only does this give me insight into who they are, but I get to see how they attack a challenge in the process.  The students write their "Eloquent I Am" poems using the same ideas, but none of the same words.  The use of creativity and a thesaurus really are important.  Instead of a basketball player, one becomes a hoop loving athlete, a cheerleader becomes a spirit inducing crowd instigator, an avid video gamer becomes a world saving super hero.  The key is to get them to have fun with words and to encourage kids to dig deeply.

*"I Am" Poems can also be used from a literary perspective later.  Have students write them from different points of view in a piece and share with the class.  It's simple but powerful.

"Spheres of Significance" (*modified from Creative Confidence by the Kelley Brothers)
*First day activity
Students are given a sheet of paper with 30 circles on it.  They have 3-5 (up to you) minutes to come up with as many symbols as they can in the circles; however, each object must represent them.  Minimal instructions are given, as this is just a way to garner ideas, get kids sharing, and learn about their personal approach to class assignments.

Post-it notes
There is something special about a handwritten note to a student.  I send them via snail mail as well as in class.  For many, it becomes a treasure because it's proof that you SEE them and what they are doing well.  It is important because kids need to know that they matter.  In a middle school classroom, there are many times when a child feels invisible.  This is one way to counter that.

Meeting them at the door
It's important to greet every student every day.  Again, I refer to the pictures the first few weeks of school and keep general notes to be intentional in my greeting.  I note things like sports, books, siblings, being new to the area, etc.  Sometimes it's a random connection, but those connections are important.  Kids need to know that you see them, that they matter.

Differentiation Activity
Along the lines of 4 corners, I put up Expert, Pretty Solid, Intermediate, Novice signs in the corners. (I change the wording a little.)  I have kids move around the room with different topics to allow them to get to know each other for their strengths (after all, everyone is an expert in something).  Topics may include things like baking, video games, theater, individual sports, etc.  The conversation we then have is that everyone in the room has strengths, and everyone (including me) has areas where we turn to others for help.  This gives students who struggle in traditional academic subjects a chance to shine as an expert.  Furthermore, what every child needs in the class is not equal.  Therefore, sometimes it will look different.  (For example, an expert football player would need different lessons to move forward than someone who doesn't know anything beyond the fact that football is a sport.) I take pictures to remind myself of the groups for future assignments. It helps me call on experts throughout the year. 

We have a duty-free lunch period of 25 (or so) minutes.  During the first few weeks of school, I join students that I have in class in the cafeteria.  We can talk about many things - and they start to understand that they are more important than a person sitting in a chair in my classroom.

Three Sentence Life Stories
Today I decided that I want to try a suggestion from #sunchat (specifically @mssackstein) of having them write a three sentence life story.  Not only will it give me perspective on what is important to them, it will give us common ground to move forward in building relationships.  Additionally, it will give a glimpse into writing ability.  The potential here excites me as an educator.

I Smile . . . a lot.  I laugh. I'm serious. I let kids see what is important to me.  I let them see when I make mistakes.  I listen.  I correct quietly.  Sometimes I dress up. I get dramatic. I tell students that they are important. I try to see different perspectives of each child sitting in the room.  When one is struggling, I try to figure out what is motivating that struggle. 

My goal at the end of every year to make every single student feel like he/she is my favorite.   The truth is -- every one of them is.  I will care -- forever.

I'd love for you to share your opening ideas and activities in the comments.  Together we are stronger!

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Thank you to @MuellerHolly for opening up her blog every Thursday to link up our #spiritualjourney posts.  I appreciate the offerings of everyone as it provides me a much needed dose of perspective.  I'm grateful for all who link, write, read, and comment.  It is from you that I learn and grow.


I love the idea behind this simple topic.  Laughter.  The act of finding joy that bubbles inside you until it escapes for the world to see your pleasure.  It is a sign of pure and moving emotion. 

In Ecclesiastes 3, God reminds us that there is a season for laughter. 
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

It's a verse that is probably familiar to all of us.  There is a time for all things.  The good and the bad.  After all, if we don't have bad, how do we know when it's good?  Without each other, it's not possible to define or understand either.  They require knowledge to know they exist.

I've grappled with the idea of bad things happening to good people a lot lately.  Why does this happen?  Why is faith challenged?  Why does laughter seem to come to others so easily when people who work hard and are faithful are filled with trials.

It's not fair, but it's in this basic challenge that it's answered.  Your faith will be tested.  Bad things will happen.  There will be mountains upon which you'll climb, fall, stumble, get lost, go forward, grow, and eventually conquer only to find that you're in the middle of the range. 

BUT God is good.  He is walking beside us, encouraging, teaching, guiding.  He teaches us that there is a time for all purposes.  There is a time to grieve.  There is a time to release.  There is a time to surrender.  There is a time for laughter.

It's through the choice.  To choose God.  To choose faith.  To choose life.

It's worth it.

Hoping you find much today that brings you laughter --

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Leaving a Legacy

Thanks to @MuellerHolly for creating a space for reflection on our spiritual journey each week.  This week's topic came from @dashthebook about leaving a legacy.  Feel free to read and enjoy our musings on Holly's blog ( - or join in on the fun. I'd love to read your reflections as well.

Leaving a legacy - a gift left for generations to come.  A story to be shared . . . such a neat concept.  We all have our story, our gift to the future, but not all know exactly how it plays out.

For example, you have authors.  We know the legacy of the heroes, villains, and ordinary people who walked the face of the Earth in biblical times.  The fact that we know it thousands of years later makes me question my choice of the word "ordinary" at all.  To me it's extraordinary that I have these stories that shape my life today to help me become the person I want to be.

Then there are musicians.  Music feeds the soul in so many ways.  The legacy they leave, their mark on the world, can impact for centuries to come.  The memories become instant, almost a direct line to the heart.  "Canon in D" -- my wedding; "I Will Survive" -- a friend's triumphant war cry in the face of cancer; "What Child is This?" -- my grandmother's church as a child with glorious trees and loving hands. 

I could go on -- the artists, the athletes, the people who fought against evil.  Their legacies are celebrated, beautiful, sometimes haunting. 

But I'm just an ordinary person.  I haven't finished a book (yet).  I haven't composed a masterpiece (probably not in my skill set).  I haven't painting anything that someone beyond my parents would appreciate.  I'm just me.  A believer.  A wife.  A mom. A friend. A teacher. Someone who can fade into the woodwork of life. 

However, God doesn't let that happen.  He is good.  He provides.  He answers prayers.

So when I start my day with, "God, let me be what You need today.  Help me to do Your work." He answers.  He moves in ways that I will never know - and when I start to doubt.  When I question, "Is this what You want?", he nudges me.

As a teacher, I'm probably seen as an idealistic person.  I believe that relationships with kids will move mountains.  When those relationships are forged, kids begin to believe in the power of "What if . . . ".  They begin to see possibilities that they never knew existed.  They begin to trust.  That trust is a powerful tool to help them engage in learning, though it's often not a quick process.  I fall on my face at times, but I believe if I exhibit grace, grace will be given in return.

I was blessed by a former colleague (1993 - 1996) this week.  We taught together in my hometown.  I was green then -- just out of college and full of ideas.  I really wasn't much older than my students -- 10  or 11 years.  (In fact I'd taught many of them swim lessons, babysat, and knew their families socially from my elementary, middle, high school, and college years.)  But I loved those kids.

I can still see them.  Once a student enters the room, he/she enters my heart.  It's kind of a messy thing -- caring -- it allows for failures, follies, and a million powerful moments.  It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.  It was also one of the most rewarding.

I'm friends with a few on Facebook.  I treasure seeing what they've done with their lives.  I love seeing them embrace life as adults -- they are now teachers, professors, professional actors, bakers, designers, architects, parents, etc.  They are doing things that were only dreams when they were in 7th grade.

Anyway, this week, my colleague shared a story with me:
Hi Amy. I had surgery on my Achilles' tendon Wednesday and saw several former WRMS students during the process. My post op nurse was a former student of yours named Kelly A......... She credits you with turning her life around. She was hanging with the wrong crowd. She stated that you cared more about her than she cared about her self. She and her mother are so grateful to you. Today she is a delightful, professional who took good care on me. I had to pass it on to you.

I cried.  Of course I remember her.  I can still see her as a 7th grader . . . and a lump of happiness sits in my throat.  I'm honored by the gift of these words.  A gift of the power of relationship in the classroom.

You see -- this is the legacy that I want to leave.  It isn't really about me at all -- it's that I want to be open to Him and how He needs to use me as a person. 

So my challenge to myself this year is to listen -- to continue to focus on the person He needs me to be. 

That may be the greatest legacy of all --

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A moment of silence.

One of my favorite ways to start the day is with a moment of silence.  I'm blessed that the state of Tennessee requires this, and I'm blessed by administrators who give the full minute every day.

I try to use the time wisely - to put aside all that needs to happen first thing in the morning - attendance, notes, reminders, greeting students - and to focus on having His blessing for the day.  I pray for the students who walk the halls at the high school next door.  I pray for the students who will sit in the chairs in my room throughout the day.  I pray for the students who will sit there in years to come.  I pray that He uses me as He needs me to help prepare my students for the lives they face.

It means a lot to me.  They never know, but it always makes a difference.  It makes my day, well, more.  It gives me perspective, patience, and a sense of calm.

I can always tell when I allow the morning cacophony to crash throughout my brain.  It's easy to be distracted by the world and its demands.  But that time needs to remain focused.  It needs to be an intentional training of the brain.

Silence.  A time to focus on what I hold to be most important.  Those things worth doing should be done well.

I begin the year in silence.  Several weeks prior to school starting, I begin sitting and praying for the students who will occupy those seats for the next 200 days.  I pray that I follow His lead in providing what the student needs.  Whatever it may be -- that I help them on his/her path.

That doesn't mean I will always agree with that path . . . what is important is that He knows what that child needs far more than I do.  It requires faith, trust, and a willingness to take turns leading, walking alongside, and following.  He knows far more than I do; I am simply an instrument.

There are times throughout a year when a class needs refocusing.  Again, the moment of silence . . . the moment of surrender to a greater purpose . . . the moment of letting go helps every single time. 

I don't shout it from the mountain tops, though the conversation definitely lifts my mood.  It doesn't need to be announced.  Most never know how vital that moment is to me every day.  After all, my job really shouldn't be focused on me.  It should be focused on my students and their needs.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

End of the year musings

Well, another end of the school year has come and gone . . .

The room is packed up tight, desks stacked in the corner, chairs tower over them.  My workspace is wiped clean - no papers, no clips, no books scattered about.  The plants are gone, the printer sits quietly in the corner.  The cords are unplugged, the colorful messages packed away.

I dislike the end of the year. 

It's not that I don't enjoy summer - I do.  I love lazy mornings, having time to write, being with my kids.  I love the pool, spur of the moment activities, seeing family.  I love reading, thinking, dreaming, getting organized.  I embrace this time every year.  It's a time to see things with fresh eyes.

But I miss my students.

I was laughing the other day -- being a little dramatic as usual.  In the office I was saying, "You give them to me for 200 days, tell me to care about them, encourage them, make them love reading, writing, and engaging in their learning; then you rip them from me and send them off to find their life."  It was dramatic - done for effect - but in my heart, I miss them. 

Sometimes I think a teacher may be the only person who really understands.  Now I celebrate from afar - most are at the high school across the football fields and parking lots.  I look at it every morning during our moment of silence and think of them before during back to the new ones in my charge.  I hope that they will find successes through challenges; that they will love and engage in what they are learning; that they will carve out a unique life path that will fit.

I still miss them.

So the end of the year brings some sadness with it.  It's a time of letting go and trusting.  Trusting that the seeds were planted in fertile minds, trusting that lessons will echo, trusting that it's really not about what I did anyway.  I was there to help, encourage, and care . . . but the hard work was done by the student. 

So I step back.  I smile.  I face a new group and care - knowing that the end of the year will come again.  It's worth it. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Finding Adventure

Adventure calls us.  It lurks around the corner.  It whispers in an ear. 

Sometimes it's giant and yells at us through a megaphone.  Other times it's quiet and sits waiting to be noticed.  Then there is the adventure that nags at us, trying to engage, stop, and notice.

It's a gift that has been given to us. 

Like all gifts, once given freely, it's up to us how we use it. 

There are the obvious adventures -- such as moving across the country or changing careers.  Those are the ones that always strengthen my relationship with God.  I spend time with Him asking for his help, His direction, His will.  He gives me cause to dance despite a different agenda from my own.  I'm grateful for His presence in my life.

It's the quiet adventures that I don't want to miss.  The beauty of snow falling in lazy, fat flakes across the frozen ground; the tiny, brave flower poking up from the crack in the sidewalk; the glory of spring buds and the glory of blazing color of the leaves in the fall.  These are the moments that make my breath falter for a moment. The beauty of simple adventures catch me off guard; often they bring a tear to my eye, grateful for a glimpse beyond my own understanding.  Adventures that often go unnoticed because we are tied up in our own plans.

This reminds me of our relationship with God.  How many times does he put things in our path that we ignore because we are concentrating on our own agenda?  Our own adventure?

Therefore, it is this exciting word that causes me to slow down.  It causes me to turn to God and hear His will.  It invigorates me to embrace Him.

I'll be honest -- sometimes the relinquishment of what I want scares me.  It takes me out of control.  It means that my hard work doesn't really matter.  So I turn to Him, on my knees, humbled. 

And I pray for His guidance through the best adventure of all -- a life lived to please Him.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


I've been thinking about the word dive for the last few days.

It takes me back to the summer when I was 13.  That was the summer I started teaching swimming lessons.  I remember one of my favorite lessons was to teach how to dive.

To teeter on the edge of the pool. Eyes on your stomach so your head would go in first.  Hands clasped together over your head.  Butterflies dancing in your stomach.

It takes a lot of trust to dive.  Those first few attempts where you stand in position and jump in the pool.  Or the inevitable face first flop because you wanted to see where you were going instead of tucking your chin.  Then of course you have the belly flop where your fear causes you to pull back from position just in time to smack you from head to toe.

I remember looking into a child's eyes, asking for his trust, and leading him through the process.  The feelings of uncertainty crossing his face, a momentary flitter of panic, a glimpse of peace.

Then the total eruption of happiness when the task was conquered.

I taught swimming lessons, swam competitively, and coached teams for over 13 years.  I helped over 1,300 kids learn to dive.  Each situation was a little different, but the basic process was the same.

Life is kind of like diving.

Most people want to know where they are going; they want control over their life.  However, this often ends up with a smack in the face, or heading in a direction you were not intending.  It's much easier to rely on our understanding of the world instead of trusting a God who can provide so much more than our human minds can comprehend.

I'll admit to belly flops.  Time where my trust wavered, and I pulled back.  They were painful; however, they helped me grow into the person that I'm intended to be.  They helped to center me on what is most important; to trust, to believe, and to be the person He desires me to be.  They taught me humility, humbled me, and forced me to my knees. 

It's when I truly embrace the dive that I fly.  It's not looking to the future; it's doing what I'm intended to do now.  It's serving how God intends me to serve.  After all, life really isn't about me.  When I can understand that, I'm filled with peace and grace.

I often go back to my favorite scripture.  It's the one that brings me peace when I have the most doubt.  It's the one that keeps me from going in feet first or face planting in the water

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  Jeremiah 29:11

With words like that, how can I not dive? 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

When do rules become more important than people?

The day I became a mother, I became a better teacher.  This is true for me.  To say that you have to be a mother to be a good teacher would be a faulty statement.  I was a good teacher prior to being a mom . . . it's just that I became better after I held my child in my arms for the first time.

It's a powerful type of love.  It created a shift in my classroom from having the focus be on me and what I needed to accomplish to seeing what the children in my room needed to accomplish.  Don't get me wrong, my classroom is usually well-organized chaos.  It's a place where kids can contribute, be pushed to excel, and find their voice.  Many leave the room with a visible shift toward a love of learning, a love of words, and the skills to face the future.  Along the way, I've made many mistakes.  I've discovered that the most important thing I can do is be honest with my students in these situations.  As an adult I have to swallow my pride at times - simply because it's the right thing to do.

But this really isn't a story about me and my classroom.  It's about being a mother.

Actually it's my son's story.  My youngest is an amazing child. (*Disclaimer -- all of my children are amazing and unique children; this just happens to be about my youngest.)  He's a cross between a skilled ninja and a giant teddy bear.  His ability and vocabulary can rival most educated adults, and he has a passion for learning.  He constantly asks questions - about words, vocabulary, life.  He creates solutions to problems, builds crazy contraptions, and enjoys experiments. He sees the world in black and white, and he is willing to fight for justice.  Sometimes I just watch him go about his day and wonder at the adult he will become. 

Other times I worry because the world is sometimes hard for ninja-like giant teddy bears who see the world in black and white. 

But let me step back.  My youngest is a big kid for his age.  At 11, he is the size of a small adult 5'5" and quickly growing out of his size 10 men's shoes.  He reads voraciously, and prefers stories about the underdog - and llamas, he loves llamas, but that is a different story.  When he's upset with his brothers, he writes parodies about life where the underdog is successful.  One of his latest works is the story of the "Three Little Llamas," a parody of the classic three bear story.  Needless to say the moral of the story was that doing a little research about life will result in a successful launch from your parents home -- instead of having a life of llama trauma or being relegated to the basement of your mother's house being addicted to video games and Cheetos.  On the athletic front, he has found success in football.  He loves his position at lineman, and he is willing to fight for position.  In the off-season he does CrossFit.  To say he loves CrossFit is not strong enough.  At times he's frustrated because he's the youngest in his group, but he continues to work to be the best he can be.  His strength continues to grow as he does.

I think he's pretty incredible.  Of course over the years it hasn't always been easy for him.  Having a vocabulary like his in a young body can cause friction in the wrong situation.  Oftentimes his peers didn't understand him.  Depending on the adult in charge, seeing the world's injustices could result in battles.  Battles that left scars - probably on both ends.  I can tell you stories about our path through elementary school.  (As I write this, I think of the character of Scout.  Most of his battles were epic, but one sided.)  His story may be novel worthy. 

As a teacher you've probably had a child like this in your class.  Building a relationship with him will cause him to move mountains for you -- because he's found someone to trust.  Or you can choose the other option - poke at him until he feels like a bear and comes out growling.  Both options will affect the person he is destined to be.

Therefore, as his mother, I implore you to SEE the children sitting in your room, eating in your cafeteria, walking down the hallways as children.  All weekend I've been struggling with something that happened last week in school. 

My son has had an amazing year in school.  Reunited with a teacher who cherishes his gifts, his questioning nature, his unique spin on life, he has grown in leaps and bounds.  Over the last two years, things have calmed down, smoothed out some.  His maturity is growing as well as understanding of others.   He's learning to grow as a leader, take responsibility for his actions, and he's starting to love school again.  It's been a process of a couple of years to get him here.  To say that two years ago was rough would be an understatement.  A year of poking the bear in school and out of school cause some eruptions.  Some were his fault, others were not.  As a parent, we worked together to take ownership of what he was doing wrong.  We worked through his responsibility, and ways to survive the year. It took a year of healing and a few special teachers along the way to even make him want to walk through the door of the school.

Though that work was undone temporarily last week.  It was a huge set-back.  You see, in an assembly he was invited by his first grade teacher to go see a picture of him in her class.  She said it made her smile, and permission was granted for him to go.  After the assembly he went to her room, saw the picture, and was feeling like he was a king.  It doesn't take much to show a child that he matters. 

Walking back to his classroom, he wasn't running; he wasn't causing problems; he wasn't doing anything but walking down the hallway feeling special.  That's when another fifth grade teacher called him out for being in the wrong space.  She questioned his answer, that he had permission to be there and asked if either teacher would be willing to support his story.  He said, "Yes.  Ask them."  Of course his back was to the wall at this point.  Any positive feelings were crushed in the fists he had by his sides.  Again, he was being accused of being wrong when he had done nothing to be wrong.  This is a theme for him in this situation; one that has happened often enough in his school career to make it occasionally a truth.  The act of being the child simply makes you the wrong person in the party.

Think about that for a moment.  The act of being the child simply makes you the wrong person in the party. 

The adult then asked his teacher if he had permission to be in the hallway.  Of course, he did. 

Her apology to him was along the lines of, "I'm sorry, but you're always doing bad things around here."

Yes, this one will hurt.  This one will show him that adults will let him down.  What lesson did she teach him?  It wasn't one of compassion.  It wasn't a positive learning experience.  What she taught him was that some people have to have the last line.  That adults are afraid of being wrong.  That you don't get a chance to learn or change.  That in school rules are more important than people.

No child is perfect.  No adult is perfect.  If you watch one long enough, you will see mistakes.  You'll see a momentary disregard for rules.  Sometimes you'll get caught.

As an adult, this is when one should apologize.  The apology should be said with sincerity for their actions because  the "but . . . " that isn't necessary.  It's an opportunity to teach compassion.  There is no need to turn a mistake back upon the child.  To the child it becomes a lesson within itself; it's okay to be wrong as long as you work to make amends.

My child is expected to do this. 

I go back to the beginning.  Becoming a mother has made me a better teacher.  It's opened my eyes to see each of my students as a child who is learning and growing.  As an adult I've learned that sometimes I need to adjust my expectations to match the child - instead of the other way around.  I've learned that relationships are key, that kids respond to sincerity.  I feel fortunate that my child had his teacher there to decompress the situation immediately - to validate that he didn't do anything wrong.  Bless her for just being there when he had been torn down.

After all, it's not really what you say that matters.  In 20 years they'll probably forget specific lessons, either they will be ingrained in the reality of their life or a vague memory.  They will remember, however,  how you made them feel.

This shift in perception is an important one.  I ask my students the following question often; "How do you want to be remembered in 20 years?"  Then I encourage them to discover the path to be that person.

Think back to your memories of school.  Don't let the opportunity to be a positive force escape your grasp. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A powerful lesson

I taught Leonardo in 1998.  I can still see him now.  He was a cocky young Hispanic boy who defiantly sat in my 7th grade classroom.  This was the first year that his father got a job at the canning factory near Rochester, MN, making it the first year that he was in the same school for the entire year.  The normal track was to attend school in MN from September - October and return in April when the fields were ready to work again.  To say his attendance was sporadic would be an understatement.

He came from a migrant family.  The oldest child of six, Leo opened my eyes to many things.  His mother deserted the family when he was in elementary school.  His father worked hard, but there were so many things lacking.  At the tender age of 12, Leo was a pseudo-parent.

In school he wore his tough façade proudly.  So many people let him down.  He was labeled as a troublemaker, a year older than everyone else in his class because he was held back.  The system didn't hold a lot of hope for him.  Other kids were a little scared of him.  He had a sharp mouth, and quick fists.

It's easy to judge that, isn't it?  It's easy to make assumptions about him and his future.

He sat in the back of the room and just watched me.  I was young, energetic, and working hard to engage my students.  I encouraged inquiry, discussion, and non-traditional projects.  I sat on the floor, read aloud, and pushed my students to embrace learning.  The first couple of weeks we circled each other - testing the waters, sometimes engaging in a quick jab, pulling back. 

I'd never taught someone like Leo.  He wasn't easy to engage.  I let it get to me - being inflexible was my mistake.  I remember arguing with him about joining us on the grass outside do participate in a class activity.  He refused to sit.  He told me I was stupid.  He wanted to be sent to the office.  I can still seem him standing proudly in the sunlight in his white pants, blue tucked in shirt. His eyes dared me to release him from the torture of being with my class.

But I still didn't really SEE him.  I didn't SEE the white pants.  I was too involved in what I wanted to listen to what HE was really saying.

Later that week I saw him driving across town.  Yes, he was 13. 

I met him at the door the next day.  "What were you doing?  You can't drive.  Something could happen to you."

"Laundry," was his simple reply.  "Someone had to do it. We don't have a machine."  Something clicked.  I remember asking him, "Is that why you didn't want to join us on the grass?"

He couldn't look at me.  He just whispered, "yeah.  Those were new pants."  New didn't happen very often in his family.

Fortunately I listened to the words behind his simple "yeah". You see, his life experience was so vastly different from mine.  So many pieces of the puzzle flew into place.  At that point I apologized.  I apologized for my insensitivity.  To this day, I still feel like a heel.  It wasn't that he didn't want to be a part of us, he just didn't want to ruin his hard work over the potential of a grass stain. 

I'm not sure that anyone had ever apologized to him.  His smile lit my heart.  It was the shift in our relationship. 

Leo was responsible for a new vision for me.  This 13-year-old boy challenged me to put my money where my mouth is and truly see every child sitting in my room.  It opened my eyes to the fact that life happens outside of my classroom that impact what happens in my classroom every single day.  Leo gave me a large dose of flexibility that I've never forgotten.

I'm grateful every day for him. 

Leo grew in leaps and bounds that year.  He passed all of his classes, had one office referral (yes, it was the pants day), and closed the gap in reading comprehension and writing.  He scoured poetry, found books that intrigued him enough to give them a shot, and learned to ask questions.  He started to find his voice. He started to find his confidence. His classmates started to look at him differently.  He emerged as a leader and kept others on task.

At the end of the year he wrote me a note:
"Miss W taught me a lot this year.  Sometimes she made me so mad that I wanted to poke a pin in her to make her pop, but mostly I just wished she was my mom."

Humbling, isn't it? 

After that year I moved to the Twin Cities, then to Texas, Kansas, and now Tennessee.  I spent a decade raising my own children, taught ELA to over 1,600 kids, and I lost track of Leo.  For the first year or so I'd hear that he was doing well in high school, then I lost touch with my contacts in the district.

It's been 17 years since I met him.  He's around the age of 30 now. 

Through him I learned about the power of relationships, looking behind the façade, listening to the true words and insecurities that kids cannot voice.  I learned about grace, found a new level of compassion, and focused less on my goals and more on what my students need. 

He taught me to make sure that every child who sits in my classroom sees his worth, to make sure that child knows that someone cares, and to keep an extra snack in her cabinet for days when there wasn't enough lunch, or breakfast, or dinner.

He was a smart young man. 

Thank you, Leo.


"Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was thinking about this weeks topic ~ FLY, I ran across this quote.  It wasn't new to me, but for some reason I was able to look at it from a different angle.  It stopped my aimless wandering through Twitter and spoke to me.

After all, isn't it the first step into the unknown that really gives us the ability to fly or reach beyond what is comfortable?

Because comfortable isn't exactly what life is about.  Comfortable can breed an attitude of complacency.  The definition of which is a person who is satisfied with himself.  That is exactly what God doesn't intend for us -- He intends a life that is full of growth.

After all, He isn't finished with me yet.
This is good. 

It kind of sounds like I'm wishing for difficult times, doesn't it?  I'm really NOT, because, well, I'm human.  However, I can step back and see how it's during those difficult times when I embraced faith and kept trudging forward that I was allowed to reach heights that I never knew were possible.

Which teaches me a lesson within itself.  It's when I cling to faith that I focus on what He wants and not me.  It's when I trust Him that he shows me new ways.

His ways -- not mine.

At 20 I would have laughed at you if you told me that at my age I'd have four children, be teaching 8th grade, and living in Tennessee.  My plan was to have my doctorate, be a college professor, and be a strong voice in the field of education.

Yet I'd be missing out on so much wonderful - the overall beauty of my family, the strength of my love, my passion for teaching the exact kids who sit in chairs in my room every day.  I'd miss out on the beauty of the sunrise, the mystery of the fog that walks through the fields on my drive to work, the laughter of my daughter giggling with her friends at lunch.  I'd miss out on being in the exact place, the exact spot that God intends for me to be.  It is so much better than I imagined at 20.

I find it's so much easier to fly when I let go of my control and give it to God.  The Father who has plans for me, who knows me, who loves me despite my shortcomings. 

Therefore, it's with his help that I will use this year to fly.  I want to serve as He needs me to serve.  I want to listen.  I want to learn.

Thank you, Michelle, for giving us this topic to contemplate. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


I'm not always good at listening. 

I'm good at knowing what I want.  I'm good at figuring out ways to explain it.  I'm good at moving forward with what I think is best.

But listening sometimes takes a back seat -- yet it's one of the most important things I can do.

When I hear negative words - words that scream, "This is stupid. I hate this. Why are you torturing me?" it's easy to react.  It's easy to fuel the fire, to belittle, to shift into outrage.  As a human, it's a natural reaction to say, "Hey, you NEED this, so just do it."

However, if you listen instead of react, you can be surprised at what is really being said.  "I don't know how to do this.  I'm afraid of feeling stupid.  I need you to show me that it's going to be okay."

That creates a vastly different scene.  It causes a different outcome.  It has the potential to change a future.

It's not always easy.  In a society bent on doing more, being more, the quiet whisper of true words often is trampled.  It is so easy to get caught up in it all.  To worry, to rage, to do, to be, to rush, etc.

Therefore I need time to stop myself - to get centered with my relationship with God - to put things on an even keel again.  To listen.

Because even though I try and figure things out for myself, what I can achieve alone is, well, nothing.  It's material - temporary - fleeting.  What I can achieve through God is so much more than I can ever imagine. 

I don't pretend to understand why things happen.  Horrible things do happen - to good people even.  Instead I need to focus on listening to His will and reaching out with the skills that He has loaned me.  I have to drag through the horrible with a focus on Him.

I will tell you this, it's always easier when it's with a listening ear.  When I'm focused on what He needs me to hear, life is happier.  It makes more sense.  Even in the middle of the horrible, He gives me hope.

Of course I need to go through this process a few million times.  I'm pretty slow.

So tomorrow I challenge myself to listen more - to hear the true words being said.  I challenge myself to listen more -- to focus on others instead of myself.  I challenge myself to listen to Him.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The beast behind the screen.

"Nobody likes you."

The words flickered across my phone screen.  They sat there from an unknown number.

Ugly words, aren't they?

To me they say a lot about the speaker.  The words were designed to hurt, tear down, make someone doubt her contributions in life.

As an adult, I can deal with that.  I know that not everyone will like me, but I'm plenty secure enough in my own worth to laugh at this pathetic attempt to bring me down. 

But it didn't stop there.  You see, this wasn't intended for me at all -- it was intended for one of my children.

What does that do to our kids?  During an age when social acceptance means so much, when they are navigating the world of figuring out their place, their style, their voice, how do we expect them to have the maturity to deal with nameless attacks?  How do we give them the confidence to find their voice and know that words like are worthless?

Especially when the attacks that may be the reality of what they fear the most - that they have nothing to contribute.

We've all heard the adage - "Sticks and stones may break my bones . . . "

But words CAN hurt.  Words have power.

Somehow I feel that with all of the benefits that social media brings to our table, it also invites a new kind of monster.  It allows people to say or do things that they would never do in public.  It allows a new kind of screen to hide behind.

I was witness to this on Twitter this week.  Many nearby districts decided to cancel school because of extreme cold.  Ours didn't.  Now I like a good snow day as much as the next person.  It a gift because all of the sudden a large load is lifted off of my plate and replaced with something unexpected.  However, I also know that our superintendent will make his best call for the district.  My voicing of the fact that I wanted to have an unexpected day off would do nothing to his decision.  In fact, it was a little selfish on my part. 

The pleas started early.  When he told them that we would have school on time (actually we opened early to make sure no one was left out in the cold, busses were started early, etc.) it started to get ugly.  It became a mob mentality - who could outdo the last post.  The Twitter community was on fire - names were called, relationships were hurt.

As if bullying the superintendent would change his mind.  It didn't.  We had school.  I had a great day with my students.
So how do we face the monster we are creating?  The fact that people can "lose their filter" when it comes to posting something for all to read?

As an adult, my first responsibility is to look at my practices on-line.  There is little I can do if I don't follow my own advice.  Do I post things that are designed to hurt, designed to encourage ridicule, designed to make someone else feel "less than" me?  If so, that has to change.  After all, it is personal to someone.  We all have moments that we don't want chronicled and broadcasted to the world.   Instead I choose to encourage.

Even if it is a stranger - the stranger has important contributions to share with the world.

As a teacher, my responsibility is to teach my students about digital citizenship.  What they post has the potential to be out there forever.  They live in a world that is so different from the one I grew up in -- when I fell on my face in high school, only those around me saw it.  Today it could be shared with the world - open to the comments of strangers who delight in judging behind their screens.  Today students navigate pressures from many sources - a stupid decision can linger.  This makes it more important than ever to examine consequences of on-line bullying.

After all, every student adds a unique contribution to the world. 

As a parent, my responsibility is to help my child navigate on-line situations.  Conversations are important.  As much as kids may complain about talking about their day, keep having conversations.  Listen.  Then when something comes up, they have a place to go.  Share books with them that deal with problems, read with them, discuss what you think the protagonist should have done in that situation.  Love them.  Remind them of this often.  Share perspective - will this be important in 5 years?  10 years?  Does this person mean something to you?  From that point you can help your child see possible solutions/perspectives.

After all, your child is important to the world.

As a human it is my responsibility to remind myself that I cannot control the actions of others, I can only control my reactions to things.  Therefore, I will choose to not post in anger, choose to post in a positive tone (as much as possible), choose to be respectful, and choose to be a source of joy.  When make mistakes (and I will), I choose to apologize, choose to make amends, and choose to learn from those mistakes.   The hardest part for me is this last one -- I choose to not give power to others through comments that are designed to hurt, belittle, or steal happiness.

Because I matter to the world as well.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The power of a single word.

My students would probably roll their eyes at my opening.

Words are power.

I say it all the time.  They have the power to heal, to love, to share, to encourage, to inspire, to contemplate.  They also have the power to hurt, to cause destruction, to build walls, and to isolate. 

Words are one of the most powerful tools - and weapons - that every human being has access to in life. 

I love to savor words, the images they create, try them out in new ways, to play with them like the toys I had as a child - carefully.  Intentionally.  After all there are ones that cause lasting scars.

Therefore, my words are rarely chosen in haste.  Last year I chose to focus on the word perspective.  It changed a lot of things for me.  Instead of giving in to the moment, I chose to look at things from a different angle, step back, allowing me the opportunity to find grace as well as celebrate joys.  It allowed me to see an angry child from the perspective of having an uncertain home situation - perhaps a shift in family, a potential move, a job loss - and gave me the opportunity to change lives instead of insist on my way.  Perspective provided many lessons along the way - it humbled me completely and allowed me to grow.

After all, we can choose to grow when we're humbled, or we can choose to stew.  Personally, I don't think stewing gets you far in life -- instead it causes you to become overcooked and burn.  (I know, it's a bad analogy . . . but it's the connotation in my mind.)  This is another lesson perspective showed me.  It's often a choice to grow.

I remember asking students, "I know you're devastated about ______ today (grade, friendship, etc.), but will it be important to you in ten years?  twenty?"  Often that helped them see it from a different angle; it diffused the situation.  It provided calm.  It soothed.  It worked for me as well -- allowing me to focus on the areas of my life that were truly important.

Alas, it's 2015, and it's time for a new word -- one that may not seem as comfortable at first, one that will teach me.  I've read so many blogs with great words --  intentional, inspirational, engage, listen, grow, etc.  I've been toying with all of them in my mind.  Each one has a unique and powerful statement.  I will use them all.  I look forward to seeing how each writer will change as a result of his/her word.  How the power of those words will work both beauty and opportunity into the lives of the author and those he/she touches. 

I wanted to be ALL the words - which sort of defeats the purpose of the activity.  Therefore I kept searching in my heart.  I prayed that the right word for me would pour from my fingertips.

It did.

This year my word will be spark. 

I love it . . . spark.

You see, I have goals to spark within myself as well as to spark others to achieve new goals.  I want this year to be less about me and more about how I can bring light to others.  How the darkness can be extinguished through the power of positive words. 

Like a candle, ignited by a single spark, can be shared to bring light to an entire room.

There are so many ideas behind the word - to encourage, to ignite, to inspire.  I cannot wait to see what paths it will lead me down. 

Because I'm confident there will be paths that I haven't traveled - bumpy, beautiful, scary, calming. 

I'm confident that spark has many lessons to teach me.  That it will provide new opportunities for teaching, learning, and growing.  Lessons that will echo in the minds of both me and my students for years to come.

Yes, words are powerful.  They should be savored and explored. 

Happy 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


I'll be honest, I've had a hard time writing the last few weeks.  I'm not sure I can really put my finger on why, other than I was struggling with being positive.  I'd write words, erase, try again, erase, and walk away - not sure my ranting was productive in any way.

My family is doing well. We are full of love.

I believe I'm doing the work God intended for me.  I love my students.

I have many friends who make me smile, laugh, wonder.

So why was I having this difficulty?  This darkness that was making me bitter.  I was accepting words designed to hurt.  I was comparing and finding myself lacking.  I was always thinking of the things I needed to do instead of focusing on what I was accomplishing.

All of those things make it hard to breathe sometimes.

Then today's spiritual journey topic crossed my Twitter feed. (Thank you Holly for providing such an awesome support system #spiritualjourney has really helped me keep my focus on what IS important.)  Light.

Light - my first though was how do I think about light when I feel dark inside?  What can I offer about light? 

Then I thought about Christmas Eve -- one of my favorite moments is when the congregation takes a single light and passes it to others and brightens the entire room.  The power of one single light to make a difference in the dark. 

And I was humbled.  Again.  Deeply.

You see, that light lives in my heart.  It's bright enough to banish the darkness -- overcome my feelings of inadequacy, the words and actions of others, my work compared to God's work.  Once again, it was a subtle nudge from God to stop listening to the world and instead listen to Him.

I will never be perfect. 

However, with my light, I will always be enough.

Happy New Year!