Category Archives: Lisa Dennis

Stick to It: Reading Goals with Staying Power

In the world of Readers Workshop, I am still working to strike a balance between the promotion of reading for the sake of enjoyment, and my capacity to hold students accountable for that reading on any consistent and meaningful basis.

In the past, I tried (and liked) Google Forms to have students reflect on and make reading goals, the use of their writer’s notebooks to track current and past reading throughout the year, and of course conferences with students to see who and where they are as readers.

However, my capacity to consistently track the reading lives of 142 students (which is far fewer even than many of my colleagues) often feels daunting, if not completely crippling. I rarely feel like I’m giving enough attention to, or celebration of, the ever-evolving reading lives of my students, at least early in the year. As the year progresses, regardless of the method, we get to know our students well enough that their reading lives come into focus, but the before Thanksgiving days are far too murky for my taste.

My goal this year was to figure out a way early in the year that I could take manageable snapshots of my students’ goal progress in order to both celebrate the success that would fuel reading momentum and to get a handle on who among my students would need the most encouragement.

For this purpose, I’ve worked to make our goals more visible, easy to check in on, hard to ignore, and readily accessible for quick conferences.

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  1. I started the year with my Reading Goal posters prominently displayed for my 9th grade classes. Each week, students would set a goal after calculating their reading rate, let me know the progress they would be working to make in their books, and how long they had spent reading. Not surprisingly, for the first few weeks of 9th grade, my projected sample of a Post-It didn’t necessarily (consistently) get us a clear picture of what we were looking for. Numbers weren’t labeled, titles weren’t always included, etc.
  2. I decided to take out the guesswork and use a Post-It template I found and photocopy quick reflections each week that would make it easy for both students and teacher to see:
  • What book are you reading?
  • What page are you on now?
  • What page will you be on based on your current calculation of reading rate?
  • How long have you been with this text?
  • Did you meet your goal for last week?

As I hand back slips to each child each week, I can do a quick check-in to see how on target, or not, my students are. This quickly prioritizes conferences for later in the week.

How do you keep track of students’ reading goals? Please leave a comment below!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

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15 Reasons to Read as Written by High School Seniors

You, dear Three Teachers Talk reader, are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of Readers Writers Workshop, but of very strange Halloween happenings. A journey into a wondrous land of…a post returned from the dead. 

A few days back, Lauren Zucker, fellow educational blogger, reached out to ask about a post I had written back in 2017 detailing the insights of her awesome blogging seniors. The post, it seemed, had…DISAPPEARED. Diving into the bowels of Word Press, I too came up empty. It wasn’t until my husband took me to the eerie depths of the Way Back Machine that I found my deleted post, and can run it here for Lauren to link to, and hopefully for you to enjoy if you missed it the first time around. Happy Halloween to all! 


I was giving my thumb a workout last week on Twitter, scrolling past political fallacies and pundit reports, quips from Ellen about cats, and sad attempts by the Packers organization to distract themselves from their lack of big plans this Super Bowl Weekend (single tear running down my cheek) and I came across an irresistible link: 15 Reasons Why You Should Read.

Aaaaaaand, I’m hooked.
Click.
Scroll.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but 15 reasons to read, linked in individual blog posts (wait for it!), written by students for their Senior English Seminar class blog and inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School.

A little investigation had me scrolling (no wonder my right eye has been twitching for two months…I may need an eyepatch soon) through the class blog of, English educator and doctoral candidate at Fordham University, Lauren Zucker’s third period students, whose sweet smiles look just like the seniors in my own classroom: five parts confidence, fifteen parts senioritis, three parts fear, two parts energy drink, and boundless potential.

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The possibilities with these blogs are endless:

  • Have your students read through them and reflect on one that stands out to investigate further.
  • Put just the rules up on the board and generate some discussion on initial impressions, connections, etc.
  • Comment on the student posts with personal experiences to connect student blogger to students in your classroom.
  • Have students write their own blog posts about the benefits of reading.
  • Challenge students to synthesize some of the logos from these blog posts into an oral defense of the endless beauty that is reading.

Below, brief explorations of each reason to read. I loved diving into this student thinking and connecting their ideas to my classroom.

  1. Reading Improves Your Social Understanding by Andrew Zayas 

    Andrew speaks to a common theme in high schools across America: We live and work in bubbles. As I suggest to my students, reading affords you the opportunity to live lives, solve problems, and meet people you may not have even considered before. Those experiences can provide, as Andrew suggests, “an unlimited source of social knowledge,” that is invaluable in a time when people need to understand one another better if we ever hope to overcome all that divides us.

  2. Reading Reduces Your Stress by Avery Semkow


    Avery explores a study by the University of Sussex in which test subjects were taken through several activities to elevate their stress levels. Reading silently for only six minutes slowed the subjects’ heart rate and relaxed muscles to a level of stress that was even lower than before they started. SIX MINUTES! When student sit in our classrooms and read for ten minutes, a veritable spa service with those four extra minutes, we are helping them to calm, focus, center. Namaste, fellow readers. Let’s do our hearts some good.

  3. Reading Helps You Sleep Better by Ben Tyler

    Similar to the study above, Ben’s piece suggests that reading, again for as few as six minutes, can help you fall asleep much faster. I’m not sure I love what this means for my classroom (at 7:20 a.m.), but I know it to be true in my own life. Or maybe that’s the full-time job and a preschooler at home. But seriously, our students need more and better sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, only 15% of high school students get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. If we can’t get them to bed sooner, at least we can help them fall asleep faster (and without glowing phones in their faces). Challenge your students to start small and commit to heading to bed with their books to read for even five minutes. It’s like a certain snack crisp that comes in a tube…bet you can’t read for just five minutes.

  4. Reading Develops Empathy by Skylar Giarusso

    If there is one thing our world needs right this very minute, it’s more empathy. Not sympathy, not apathy, but empathy. The words of Atticus Finch ring more and more true each time I read them. If we could all just “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it,”  I think we could benefit from the shared perspectives that promote more patience, tolerance, and civil discourse.

  5. Audiobooks Are Another Great Option by Thomas Hamrah

    Let’s get this out of the way – I have never listened to an audiobook. Not because I don’t want to, but mostly because I haven’t broken my longstanding addiction to NPR, so most of my car time is either spent listening to Morning Edition or, if Ellie is in the car, “Let it Go” from Frozen. What’s interesting to me is that Thomas explores the idea that students think listening to an audiobook is cheating, but like most things, it’s only cheating if you don’t do the actual work. Attentive listening is a necessary life skill, one we promote in the classroom as it is often underdeveloped in our students (Let’s get real. Many adults need more work at listening too. Listen first. Think of a response and talk later). Stories are meant to be heard. Listening isn’t cheating.

  6. Reading Shapes Your Personality by Tori Murry

    Tory takes her self-described “fascination with psychology” and uses the same study as Skylar but moves her conclusions in another direction. The class discussed which parts of your personality are genetically linked to relatives and which parts you can craft. I know that adolescence finds our students at the prime point in their lives to become independent thinkers, and thereby, independent people. I’d like to believe that I’m equal parts Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Anne Spier, Jo March (though I’m probably more of a Meg, so room to grow in spirit there), Offred, and the Lorax. I think it would be a blast to have students help support elements of their personalities with book characters.

  7. Reading is Fun by John Miele

    I loved that John explored how reading can challenge you to solve a mystery, allow you to escape reality, and be a “part of something” all at the same time. I’ve seen it happen in my room. I gushed so long and hard about A Monster Calls, that I now have a group of about 25 students that want to meet on a Saturday at the movie theater to see it together. “We can go to the movie and then get coffee. You know…be collegiate and talk about whether or not the movie does the book justice.” Fun! In addition, that social element can be defining. “Everyone” read R.L. Stine when I was a kid. Our students “all” read Harry Potter. Books promote belonging and genuine belonging promotes positive feelings. This is at the heart of my classroom and I may be biased, but it is fun.

  8. Reading Will Make You Live Longer by Maeson Nolan

    I’m going to need extra years in my life to read all the books on my “next up” list, that’s for sure, so if a study from Yale is telling me that reading 3.5 hours per week will add two years to my life, I’ll dismiss my misgivings about sample size, variables, and math in general (never been my strong suit anyway). 730 days is a lot of reading. Now, I just need to get Yale to do a study on beach reading.

  9. Choice Encourages Reading by Nicole Kudelka

    Choice is nothing new to 3TT, but what struck me about this perspective was the way one of Nicole’s classmates phrased her insights on why choice matters: “Assigned books become more of an obstacle, and shortcuts are taken because the grade is more important than the actual book.” Amy’s post on choice yesterday, shared this same sentiment: When we “make kids read a book,” we might as well mandate that they enjoy it while we’re at it. My honors kids, by and large, didn’t read more when I assigned nine whole class novels, they just got better at convincing me they read nine books. Cultural literacy and choice can coexist, they need not be mutually exclusive, so we must work to increase choice to build volume and then push for complexities (classic or not). Penny Kittle says that we must first engage in order to build volume, then complexity can follow.

  10. Reading Doubles Your Vocabulary by Brian Sayre

    A voluminous lexicon can be procured through bibliophilic tendencies. Win.

  11. Reading Preserves Your Memory by Claire Blass

    If I am going to live two years longer, I’d like to remember those years, and all that came before. No surprise, that stimulating your brain with books can help sharpen brain function. In fact, I told my classes today before silent reading that I was presenting them with an opportunity to not only be smarter but think smarter. Seriously, will my benevolence ever cease?

  12. Just Ten Minutes of Reading Yields Better Reading by Griffen Klauser

    Griffen explores the idea that 10 minutes of reading per day (again, classes, you are welcome) is a stepping stone. In his own small experiment over Thanksgiving break, he challenged himself to read just ten minutes per day. By the end of the break, he read 90 minutes in one day because he was so “into” his book. As the brain is a muscle, it needs training. I’m never going to make it through a sixty-minute spin class if I haven’t exercised in months. I’m never going to finish 601 pages in East of Eden if I don’t keep after it in small chunks. And if I could give two hoots about what I’m reading, I’m not even going to make ten minutes a day for it. So, please see #9.

  13. More Reading = Better Writing by Nick Frasco

    “Reading molds your writing style.” Preach, Nick. Preach.

  14. Reading Changes Your Perspective by Noah Slakter

    I love that Noah’s insights run completely contrary to my piece Books Can’t Be Bullied. He argues that the text means nothing without a reader to understand it, and that understanding can vary from person to person (Transactional Theory), anyone?. I think back to my earliest days of teaching. Five sections of freshmen per day. Five days per week. It’s the year I developed my saying about supporting an opinion on a text with text evidence: “As long as you don’t tell me it’s about a giraffe (as I have never read something solely about a giraffe), you’re right.” Their opinions varied as widely as their converse shoe color, so we learned to synthesize those perspectives to get at meaning. Did opinions change? Certainly. Did students grow in hearing the varying perspectives of their classmates? Certainly.

  15. Reading Gives Your Brain a Workout by Samantha Bernstein

    Reading these 15 pieces certainly gave my brain a workout! I’m proof that it’s true. I also loved Samantha’s voice when she said, “The mental task of reading words on a page, processing them, hearing the voice in your head, creating a picture in your mind, and following a plot is not only a mouthful but a nice stretch for your noggin.” She encourages us all to show our brains “some love.” I love it.

If you’d like to read the student blogs in their entirety or pass along the readings to colleagues and students, take a look at each of the pieces here. And don’t forget to follow Lauren @LGZreader for more great ideas and insights. If you want to take a look at how she’s having her students promote their work on Twitter, take a look at #SESNH.


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

#3TTalks Shop — It’s about Time

Quick Conversations on the Topics That Matter to You!

“To the true teacher, time’s hourglass should still run gold dust.” ~Douglas William Jerrold

“These are the times that try men’s [teachers’] souls.” ~Thomas Paine

Conversation Starter:  With all the demands on teachers beyond the classroom (extra duties, campus committees, new initiatives, etc) how do we capitalize on the time we have and keep our focus on our learners?

Amy:  I am lousy at self-care, yet I know that is an important part (maybe the most important part) of time management. It is hard to take care of ourselves, physically,

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Photo by Aron on Unsplash

mentally, emotionally, and spiritually when all require at least a little of our time–usually alone time–and others put demands on us we have little control over. My trouble starts within the school day and bleeds over into home time: excessive meetings where little get accomplished or co-opted conference periods or new accountability systems or school initiatives that do little to promote academics, especially literacy, are the biggest time swamps to the workday. New things so often trump what actually needs to happen regularly in classrooms. Every good teacher I know takes work home, and this is the work that usually requires the most mental capacity and relates directly to student learning. I think administrators forget that all too often.

Lisa: I spent some time in a school improvement meeting today, during which I wrestled with this very notion. How do we continue to work eight, nine, twelve hours a day without burning out? How do we face the fact that “hour number twenty-five” is never going to come to the rescue of our ever-expanding task lists? How do we devote ourselves daily to the exhausting pursuit of teaching, and have anything left over for family, friends, or even the pet goldfish? (I marvel at Doc’s resilience as the often neglected Dennis Family goldfish)  

Most importantly, how do we make sure the precious few hours we have with our students in class, best reflect all the work we do outside of class on their behalf?

Amy: That’s where the routines of workshop keep me sane. No matter what anyone else demands of me, when I keep my focus on student engagement via reading, writing, listening, talking, and thinking together about issues they care about, utilizing our classroom library and writer’s notebooks, we accomplished something good that day. I

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Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash

remind myself to step back, slow down, and focus on what really matters in growing confident and accomplished readers and writers:  choice, access, volume, time, and my expertise as literacy instructor and discussion facilitator.

Lisa: Yes! I find that when I’m spinning out of control with all the “other,” my solace lies on the shelves of books that guide my work with kids. My refined definition of what it means to be a good English teacher includes taking time to lose myself in books, with the express purpose of bringing the mirror, window, or door back to my students through book recommendations, excerpts for mentor texts, and even just the calmer, happier teacher that reading makes me and that they deserve.

Now, as for overcoming all of the additional demands the job places on us these days, I am slowly coming to terms with (very slowly, as my mental health is still a bit tenuous in this regard) the fact that only I can create the personal boundaries around how much work comes home with me both literally and figuratively, and I absolutely must make it a priority to limit the extent to which this job becomes my entire life. This happens when I let go of what I think I should be doing, and focus instead on what’s most important. 

Amy:  Personal boundaries! Yes, yes, yes. I am pretty lousy at those, too. I am working on it though. One thing that’s helping me set myself up for success (and cope with everything else) is a combination of two time management techniques. It works like this: 

  1. List 3 big (urgent, important, make-everything-else-easier-when-this-gets-done) tasks
  2. List 2 other important, but not so pressing, things
  3. Then, do #1 on the big list in sprints of the longest time chunk I can manage. Within the school day, this might be 15 minutes. Unplug, shut the door, and keenly focus.

Imagine the possibilities if we had the time to keenly focus on our students all the time?

Lisa: It’s so true. There’s always a ton to bring home. However, having a kindergartner at home has really put into perspective for me how much time I should be putting in at home when it now feels like it’s not only at the expense of my mental health but the well-being of my child. I limit the amount of work I do at night these days because spending time with my family and then trying to get a reasonable amount of rest before my alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. may be the only thing between me and burnout right now.

I’ve taken the practice of one of our district administrators to heart this year and I’ve worked to keep my “school hours” to a twelve-hour window. I do not check my email before 6:00 a.m and I do not check it after 6:00 p.m. I am more than connected to colleagues and school happenings in other ways, so should there be an emergency or change of plans big enough to impact the following day, I’d still know about it. Beyond that, the homework “emergencies” of my students can be addressed the following day. I can follow up with a parent or colleague when I get into work. In this way, I can be more present at home when I’m there, and at least attempt to draw that line between my work and my life so that my time is better spent in both places. Now weekends…that’s another story. I’ve got some reevaluation of time management to do there, for sure, not to mention guilt around working AND not working. 

Amy:  Smart, Lisa! Your twelve-hour window is generous, and you are so right:  That kindergartener of yours–and Doc the goldfish–need you! Everything else can wait.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

 

A Rebuilding Year – Growth Mindset for the Weary Educator

It’s been a solid decade since I taught freshmen, but those babyfaced, wide-eyed foundlings and I are on a long overdue reunion tour this year.  Such youth. Such innocence. Such…incredible chaos. I’m straight up exhausted. It’s a late February tired in early October on this homefront and wow, do I feel a heck of a lot older than my (insert inaudible mumbling here) years.

But, I’ve got a contingency plan, my fellow workshop enthusiasts, and it goes a little something like this:

Keep at it.

Keep at it for the ones whose names you learned first, out of necessity to rein in their testing behaviors. Keep at it for the ones who just can’t seem to get their curiosity, listening ears, and class materials in the same place at the same time. Keep at it for the ones who have fought you on every book selection you’ve slid ninja-style before them without yet hearing the sweet click of a kid who is hooked on a great book. Keep at it for the ones glued to your book talk, but still “too cool” to ask the teacher about something to read. Keep at it for the long haul…we’ve only just begun.

Sometime a few months back, in the blissful noncombative expanse of summer, I must have had a premonition of the deep need I would have to hear these words and repeat, mantra-style, this cadence of pushing forward to what can and will be better because of my efforts.

I was putting a cover together for my writer’s notebook so I’d have something personal to show my students, my 9th graders especially when it came to creating a notebook that invites exploration. I had been cleaning out a closet in our office/playroom, sorting through mementos I was saving to document my daughter’s latest art projects, and I came across two seemingly disparate items that sparked a theme for my writer’s notebook, and my year.

The first was a collage that hung in my locker when I was in high school. A random conglomeration of magazine clippings that spoke to some of my extremely adolescent aspirations.

growth.jpgThe other, a stack of unrelated photos from when my grandparents built their house in the early 1950’s. The tiny black and white photos cataloged the creation of a home that I would come to know as a place with countless memories, but in these photos, it was an unfinished, stark-looking shell.

The kitchen I would learn to bake in did not yet exist. The trees I would climb and swing from had not yet been planted. The four-lane highway that runs before it now, was then, just a dirt road.

But in those pictures, beyond the unfinished walls and barren yard was something even greater than it’s current state of general chaos – potential.

From those photos, I selected one and went on a mission to gather other illustrations of potential and growth. I added to my cover a picture from my wedding day, another of Ellie on one of her first days of daycare, a daily behavior chart from those same early days of “school,” and a sample of her earliest “stories.”

Together, these pieces helped me share with my students a purposeful personalization of my notebook, and shed light on part of my goal-setting process for the school year:

Overcome the fear (The freshmen are coming! The freshmen are coming!) and keep at it. Push forward through what’s hardest. Look for signposts of small successes along the way. Always travel in packs – collaborate, seek feedback, lean on others for support (Huge shout-out here to my fellow English 9 support team who have kept me afloat these first few weeks). And these pieces of advice are as true for the educators, as they are for our students who are just gaining their footing as readers and writers.

So, as my freshmen file in today, I will look past my tired and the somewhat frustrated, and instead, remind myself of the big goal I set for myself and their potential for growth. I will look to the young scholar I have had to speak to in the hallway on more than one occasion already about his disruptive behaviors sidelining the entire class. I will look to the young woman who rarely even makes it to class, and I’ll capture each time I see her as an opportunity to try and get her to come back. I will look to the socially awkward young man whose first speech of the year suggested he likes online video games to make friends so he can avoid people judging what he looks like in person. And for each of them, and all the rest, I will focus on what my conversations with them one on one can accomplish. Conferring is where the magic really happens, and if you’re too tired or overwhelmed to talk with kids, as I have sometimes already felt this year, then it’s time to reprioritize. Quickly.

It’s for those students who have admitted they haven’t completed any books since about the 5th grade. It’s for those students who say they love to write, but never want to share that writing with the group. It’s for the students who loved reading at one point and somehow that love was stomped out of their lives. It’s for the compliant ones, almost most of all, who need a spark instead of a dying fire to light their way back to the beauty of being readers and writers.

It’s because they can grow, they need to grow, and so do I, that I do this work every day. And though that road sometimes seems very long, often thankless, and sometimes overwhelming to the point of mental breakdown, it’s where this work will take us that’s important. So…I’ll keep at it.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

What Do Today’s Students Need?

This post very nearly slipped through the cracks, but I’m tickled to have found it. Mid-July Lisa and Two-Weeks-Into-School Lisa are of the same mind, if not the same sleep surplus, and now is the perfect time to resurrect my enthusiasm around knowing our students from as many angles as possible.


Greetings from McKinney, Texas where the RealFeel temperature is 108 degrees and this Wisconsin gal is melting her way through professional development with an awesome group of enthusiastic, inquisitive, and insightful secondary teachers.

It is always such a privilege to be asked to teach teachers. The energy that’s built around sincere investment in collaboratively improving practice is inspiring, even in those desperate weeks when “Back to School” advertisements burst onto every conceivable media outlet in that all-out assault to all things summer that makes me equal parts desperate, angry, and a little bit twitchy.

In our work in McKinney, we’ve had a goal to both educate teachers on the inner workings of workshop instruction and to encourage them to provide opportunities for students to have transactional experiences with texts. To begin, Amy shares a quick YouTube piece that gets us all thinking about how the students who sit before us are defined (and how they are not defined) based on the chaotic, frenetic, and often times depressing experiences the wider world has thrust into their lifetimes.

We then reflected in our notebooks on what this video suggests to us about the needs of our students.

Now, let’s be frank before your own list of student needs forms in your head. If the needs of our students are defined by the standards that require assessment, the chunks of curricular content that define the roadmap of our lesson planning, and or our preconceived ideas of their abilities, we’ve started in the wrong place.

We must always remember…we teach humans. Our work with specific content, abilities, skill levels and learning styles can be important factors in meeting our professional obligations and/or defining parts of what we do each day. However, it is the growth of students as readers, writers, and thinkers that must be at the center of our determination of their needs.

With this in mind, here was my sixty-second jot list:

  • They need role models
  • They need calm in a world of unending chaos
  • They need security
  • They need to learn to communicate effectively, both in person and through technology
  • They need to see themselves reflected in their education
  • They need to see the value in their voices and then have a place for that voice to be heard
  • They need to better understand one another in an effort to build empathy.

The large group shared out a list of ideas that was beautifully responsive to the wide variety of difficult realities our students face. These are the needs of a generation, as one PD participant suggested, who have been largely raised by “lawnmower parents,” in other words, those who pave the way for their children to avoid conflict, though the wider world is full of it. So in essence, our students need not only a respite from the chaos of the world but also a place that then challenges them to critically think through how they can maneuver their way through it and problem solve solutions to big issues.

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So, what to do with this information? Everything. We do everything with this information. It guides the choices we make from the start of the year to the end, from the first time we sit down to plan to our responsiveness in the face of differentiated preferences and needs, from the enthusiasm that bolsters the start of the year to the shadow that can fall on our practice when we’ve lost our way and enthusiasm and productivity can plummet in our classroom.

It’s no easy work, but as we know, so often that means that it is precisely the work that needs doing most.

What specific needs are your students exhibiting early this year? How are they impacting your daily work? Feel free to comment below!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Settling into Summer: Simple Suggestions to Take the Break You Deserve

This post is for the teachers who can’t turn it off. For the educators who long for summer and then don’t know what to do with ourselves once we get here. For the realists who know it will end all too soon. For the battle-weary who are almost too tired to enjoy it. For those who end the school year, just to jump into more and more work without so much as a nap. You are not alone. Remember, you too are entitled to a break. 


Looking back at my summer posts from the past few years, it would seem that I have a problem. It’s a problem that 97% of Americans would likely sneer at, as summer vacation doesn’t readily suggest problem to the general public. It is, after all, weeks of freedom from work. The option to spend the day in yoga pants. Daytime television access that few get to enjoy (if that’s the right word). An opportunity for extended relaxation reserved for educators who share their very souls for roughly 180 days, plus weekends.

Every year, as summer approaches, I suggest to my colleagues that it doesn’t feel real. Maybe it’s the habit of nine months of all encompassing giving. Perhaps it’s the bone-Rest-Relaxationtired confusion of early June. Maybe it just seems too good to be true, but either way, we wake up one fine morning and school is over. Disbelief likely continues. A bit more guarded excitement bubbles up. Then, because we are hardwired to keep pushing forward at all costs,  we dutifully race into vacation (with a fevered pitch eerily reminiscent of the one we used to make it through the final crazy weeks of the school year) and look around wide-eyed wondering where to start. Having dragged ourselves across the finish line, heads down but thumbs up in our classroom community successes, we snap to once again to “get this summer thing underway.”

If you are anything like me, this frenzied shift in daily responsibility quickly manifests itself in lists. The to-do lists that instantly stretch out five country miles and look strikingly similar to the lists created for the endless responsibilities of work, but pay no attention! Get moving!

No wonder I don’t feel like I’m on vacation…I could fill every minute with need instead of want and find myself in mid-August with a cleaner house, every health related appointment scheduled and managed, minimalist ambitions catalogued and embattled against my concurring desire to shop, habitual Twitter monitoring accomplished in order to continue professional development, email checking to assist students with summer work and stay on top of administrative requests, and end up just as fatigued as I was on the last day of classes, and maybe sunburned too boot.

Don’t get me wrong, the entire summer can’t be spent on want over need. We are adults and there are responsibilities to attend to year round. However, I think what I quickly forget, or habitually ignore, is that based on the taxation of careers, most professionals do in fact take vacations.

What was that again?

Professionals take vacations.

Now, to be honest, I typed that twice, and made it gigantic once, to make myself believe it, because I think I’m terrible at heeding my own insights. When I try to relax, my brain runs on guilt-ridden overdrive: There is so much to be done! There was no time before, and nothing but time now! Fill it up! MAKE something of today! List, list, LIST! 

Welcome to my brain. Don’t stay too long, you may develop anxiety.

Thankfully, this post is helping me process, and here is the insight this therapeutic writing has directed me to: If I don’t figure this out, everyone is going to suffer.

Sunshine and rainbows today, aren’t I? But it’s true. If I don’t shut off my teacher brain, so valuable during the school year to keep me on top of the 5.2 million divergent tasks we tackle in a day, I’m going to suffer during a time I should be recharging. My family is going to suffer because I’ll still be stressed out. My future students will suffer because I won’t get my mojo back to start the year with rested enthusiasm and rejuvenated vigor.

In a few short weeks it will be July 4th, strange psychological turning point for my own summer, so it bears repeating that I need to give myself an actual break. You need to give yourself an actual break. Unplug, get lost, be silly, tune in to your hobbies, hold tight to your passions, reconnect with your own children, have ice cream for dinner, and stay up until 2:00 A.M. reading.

I read once that if you’re sad, you should stand before a mirror and smile at your reflection until you feel happier. Scientifically speaking, your mood will in fact improve, and the smiling will have helped to change your trajectory. Perhaps it’s the same with summer. Do more and more summer everyday, and you’ll get yourself into that habit. More pool lounging, campfire sitting, lemonade sipping fun. Additionally, might I suggest:

  1. Be aware of your drive to keep pushing, and actively work to put the brakes on. Make yourself take a day away. Then two. Perhaps a week or two without work. You’ve got the time, so make the conscious choice to use it and appreciate it. As I rockssuggested to myself and to you last year (when will I ever take my own advice?!) – Remain Calm.
  2. If you must work, as most of us do, treat yourself in small ways. Try not to let the work consume your whole day, or peel away your sun-soaked attitude. Whether it be your casual attire, a shot of flavor in your traditionally black coffee, and/or the guilty-pleasure read you put in your bag to fill mandatory breaks along the way, remember that you get to enjoy these days too because you’ve worked hard to earn them.
  3. If your summer break involves a good deal of work beyond your teaching career, as some of us legitimately need to additional employment over the summer to make ends meet (but that’s a whole other post), try and make small breaks mean more. Completely unplug for a day or take a drive on your own with your journal and spend one day exploring, writing, reading, thinking. Whenever possible, be mindful of the mental and physical breaks you still desperately need after a year in the trenches, and ask for the help from friends, family, and neighbors to get it. It takes a village!
  4. Put a little bit of you into every single day. Take the time to read what your heart desires. Take the time to write for you. Take the time to sleep. Heaven knows that school does not afford much time for napping, once we get rolling again, so employ the summer catnap early and often.
  5. Embrace a little transcendentalism. If you have work to do, try and do it outside. If you are insistent on perfecting your educational practice and/or yoga moves (yes, I stumbled upon a guided script on yoga for teachers…enjoy), connect with nature while you’re doing. Better yet, keep in mind – Thoreau would want you to remember that the nature of our reality is governed by experience. The more you get out and do, as opposed to list, ruminate over, or worry about, the better off that reality will be…just make sure you reflect carefully on your experiences in a small cabin located next to a quiet body of water.

Summer is a gift. Lift your foot off the accelerator for a bit and look around at what you might not notice if you don’t take the time to refuel. You deserve this break. Make it a priority to enjoy it just as much as you use it.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. This summer, she’s hoping her new bullet journal is going to assist her in her pursuits to relax. She sees the irony in this and is also ironically powerless to stop it. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

 

What Should I Read Next? – How to Further Fuel Your Bibliophilic Ambitions

Hypothetically, this post will offer upwards of 387,993 book recommendations for your ‘To Read Next List.” Honestly, I’m terrible at math, so that number may be a bit hyperbolic, but I bet it got your attention. Realistically, you may be cursing me by the end, because summer is NOT going to be long enough to explore all of these texts, even the mere fourteen I’ll link up to below may give me a run for my money (not in number, but I already have a lengthy “to read” list!), but oh my, my, did I hit the book recommendation jackpot.

My gal Shana who texted me just a few days ago suggested a podcast that has quickly become my latest obsession. Shana knows what’s what. She’s up writing at 5:00 A.M. almost daily, has rearranged her extensive personal book collection in a color-coordinated bliss that reminds me of High Fidelity, and is moving her family to Wisconsin to be closer to me. Ok, she may be moving to Wisconsin because of her lovely husband’s medical career, but she will be in the same state as I am. In short, she’s all kinds of awesome and I trust her recommendations implicitly. When she told me I needed to listen to this podcast, because it reminded her of me, I was tickled.

My husband is likely glowering as he reads this, knowing he has been trying with little success to get me hooked on podcasts for nearly a decade, but Shana’s suggestion that I check out the What Should I Read Next? podcast with Anne Bogel has my book list laden with enough literary lovelies that I’m going to need to take a sabbatical.

what should i read

Ms. Bogel is the author of the hugely successful, and likewise entertaining, blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, that explores countless angles to life as a modern woman.

Readers Beware If you click on the above link, you will land down a delcious rabbit hole of reading guides for book clubs, summer book lists, links to works of major authors, not to mention over one hundred podcast episodes talking about books and reading. It’s a biliophiles delight for sure.

After listening to only one episode of her podcast,  I wanted to someday be able to claim to have known Anne Bogel for years and chatted with her about books over a big bowl of Chex Mix with Peanut M&M’S, and I had a list of fourteen books that I want to check out. That’s a book recommendation every four minutes in a fifty-two-minute podcast. (My list from the followup episodes I’ve digested is likewise lengthy).

On this episode (one of four I have listened to in just the past three days), Annie Jones, owner of The Bookshelf bookstore in Thomasville, Georgia, chats with Bogel about recommendations for summer reading and the joys and trials of reading for a living.

As my workshop teacher senses apparently never go off, I not only mentally cataloged a lengthy list of book recommendations, but some advice I wanted to share with my students next year as we set reading goals and look to the future of our reading lives in the 2018-2019 school year: Never allow your reading life to be bogged down by a number. Whether you feel overwhelmed because your goal is so lofty that you end up flying through books instead of relishing them, or you nervously look at your elbow partner’s number and yours is nowhere near the depth, breadth, or drive of his/her reading life, don’t get discouraged.

Reading is all about finding balance.

The balance of goals with other parts of our lives.
The balance of genres.
The balance of what we feel we should read vs. what we want to read.

So, without further ado, here are a few suggestions from episode 132, “The books we can’t wait to read this summer”:

  1. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. Last Christmas break it was America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie (and their latest, My Dear Hamilton). In episode 128, Tracie Haddock recommends I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe. A woman disguising herself as a man to fight in the American Civil War? I’ll raise the flag for that!
  2. I often feel like I’ve got to read what’s hot. Well, what about what was hot a few years ago? Jump back a few years and check out these biographies of some seriously awesome women. Abigail Adams by Woody Holton and Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd.
  3. Looking for a super hot memoir?  Educated by Tara Westover fits the bill. I had a student scoop this one up, but I am going to make sure to get it back and read it myself over the summer.
  4. Looking for last year’s super hot memoir? Try The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner.
  5. That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam was named one of the most anticipated books of 2018 by everyone from Buzzfeed to Vogue. A text classified as “Women’s Fiction” that’s written by a man and recommended by Celeste Ng. I feel like name-dropping, in this case, is what it’s all about.
  6. The Royal We by Heather Cocks is the ultimate Kate Middleton fanfiction. So…yeah. Beach read, anyone? This is a quick downhill on the Penny Kittle reading roller coaster for sure.
  7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was one of my favorite reads this year and disappeared from my classroom the day I book talked it with the quote “Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” Post-apocalyptic symphony, pandemic flu, and multiple plotlines make this a truly powerful read.
  8. For musicians, lovers of music, and those that buy books based on their covers comes The Ensemble by Aja Gabel.
  9. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza arrives in June and introduces Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth.
  10. Tangerine by Christine Mangan is a delicious Gone Girl type historical mystery. And to take it up a notch…
  11. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton is apparently the R-Rated version coming out this summer.
  12. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert will most definitely be in my classroom library next fall as a YA fairy tale about fairy tales.
  13. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey follows a young lawyer in 1920’s Bombay as she tries to execute the will of a man who leaves behind three young wives. This book is a multicultural adventure that introduces a sharp new sleuth for mystery lovers.
  14. Coming in July, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon which is a “powerful, darkly glittering novel about violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young Korean American woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.”

There is certainly something here for everyone, and the few episodes of this podcast that I’ve listened to would suggest that there is something for everyone at What Should I Read Next? too. It’s quickly become my go to as I twiddle my thumbs and wait for my Libby library holds to catch up with my ambitions.

Happy listening and happy reading, friends! Summer IS just around the corner.

What’s on your summer reading list? Have you read any of the books in the recommendation list above? What did you think? Please comment below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her current read is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and she’s eagerly awaiting her next Libby hold, Stephen King’s On Writing.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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