Making Time To “Slack Off” Is My New Priority

Throughout the year, I am guilty of getting caught up in the busyness of the daily grind. I never keep up with the latest Billboard Top 100s, the celebrity gossip, trending shows on Netflix or what is new in the theaters. Additionally, I seem to never find enough time to do the things I love like crafting, reading, etc. Naturally, the break seemed like the perfect time to do all of the things I don’t normally get to. With the break nearing the end, how many things on my list have I done do you ask? Not one.

Did I read the books I intended? No. In fact, they are on my desk in my classroom because I forgot to grab them as I flew out the door once the bell rang.

Did I binge watch any shows or catch up on my favorites I have missed? Absolutely not. In fact, the TV hasn’t been on very much. When it has, the remote control is never under my command.

Did I clean my house? No. My Christmas tree is still up as are all of the decorations. I even have some laundry that hasn’t been put away in over a week.

Did I break out my Cricut machine and craft my heart out with all of the projects I saved on Pinterest? No. Not in the slightest. I haven’t even turned it on in almost a month.

With all of the resolutions people are posting, I am exhausted thinking about all of the commitments, energy, and creativity that seems to be inspiring everyone EXCEPT me at the moment. I thought about downing some energy drinks and sucking it up to begin to tackle the emails, grading, and cleaning while I still have a little time left. Then I came across this while choosing to peruse Facebook instead.

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It was then that I immediately decided to ignore the inner voice that made me feel “less than” for choosing to “slack off” during my break.

Unknown 1We have all heard the phrase… You cannot pour from an empty cup. I wholeheartedly believe that this sentiment works both ways. We cannot give to others if we do not feel whole ourselves. Our intentions can always be from the heart, but intentions don’t create change. Actions do, and sometimes, I simply do not have enough energy to act in ways I would like.

The same can be said for our students. As a adult, if I am in need of a physical, mental, and emotional break, then our KIDS are in need as well. We need to be able to model these moments for kids, too.

So here is what I DID do. I spent time with my family doing nothing except enjoying each other’s company. We played board games, painted rainbows, we colored endless amounts of pages in new coloring books with fresh markers, and we went to more movies in the past week than we did the entire semester. (Trust me, I probably ate my weight in movie theater popcorn. #noregrets) Our favorites were Aquaman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Mary Poppins Returns.

Getting lost in movies, relaxing, allowing myself to NOT feel guilty about the stack of papers I didn’t grade or the stack of books I didn’t read has been one of the best decisions I have made in the last year. I vow to ensure that I make time for more “breaks” not only for myself, but for my students as well.

WOOPI came across this post on We are Teachers entitled Why “Think Positive” Isn’t Always Enough (For Teachers or for Kids) This shift in thinking might be what is needed in order to make sure that this “balance” continues in my classroom. Being realistic about what we need, when we need it, and why we need it might be the missing piece to accomplishing goals without feeling burnt out and overworked. This post highlights a WOOP strategy in setting realistic expectations and goals for both students and teachers. 

It is definitely worth a try.

What are some ways you balance the burnout?

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Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, Texas. At the moment, she is savoring every second spent cuddling her family, including her 2 human and 2 fur children. She loves a good fluffy blanket and pair of fuzzy socks to get her through the rest of her break. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3

 

I’ve Got Three Problems

Of course, making New Year’s resolutions is nothing new. Perhaps keeping them is. At least for me.

If you know me well, you know I am an idealist. I usually wake with Big Ideas that go onto lists and into Whatsapp convos with my blogging partners. But lately, actually, for a long while now, my first thought of every day has been:  What is it you want?

I do not have an answer (at least not one simple enough for just one blog post), but I do have a pretty clear idea of what I do not want. We can all probably make that list — easy.

I read Seth Godin’s blog pretty much daily. He’s a marketing guru, and I find useful info in his short quippy posts. On the last day of 2018, he published  Hilbert’s list.  It begins like this:

In 1900, David Hilbert published a list of 23 problems that he proposed would be the important ones for mathematicians to solve in the upcoming century. That list led to a focused effort that lasted a century, and the vast majority of the problems have been fully or partially solved. Ignoramus et ignorabimus is a foolish statement. We can know, and one day, we will.

Technology (the technology of connection, of devices and of knowledge) can create a surplus. The cost of light, of transport and of food has dropped by orders of magnitude in just a few lifetimes. Most of us waste electricity, water and other essentials in ways that would have been astonishing just a generation ago. Privileged populations go to the doctor for illnesses that wouldn’t even be a topic for discussion among those with less access to the surplus that we’ve created in access to healthcare.

Surely, we can build a better future with technology instead of focusing on autonomous drone delivery of a latte 9 blocks away in San Francisco.

As we enter a new year, one in which technology promises to move faster than ever, it’s worth considering what our 23 problems might be.

Then Godin suggests we make a list of the problems we want solved, personally and/or globally.  He states, “Technology doesn’t have to be high-tech. It can simply be the hard work of finding generous solutions to important problems, big or small.”

And this made me think about teaching, specifically teaching our readers and writers to be better readers and writers. I could probably come up with a list of 23 problems, but I think a concerted effort on just three would change literacy education as we know it. Thus, we change the lives of our students — and potentially, the world.

  1. Equitable systems that validate, celebrate, and allow educators to teach into the personal and unique strengths and needs of each learner.
  2. Authentic literacy experiences, including easy access to a wide array of vibrant engaging books by diverse authors our readers want to read; and using these texts to teach writing — the kind of writing our writers want to write, and readers in the world want to read.
  3. On-going professional learning at every level of literacy education, which builds content-specific skill so administrators and teachers know how to engage and instruct readers and writers through authentic literacy experiences.

As we step into 2019, I commit to adding my voice, to pushing back against the status quo, to advocating for students and teachers. As Godin says, “Our next steps might be far more effective than simple resolutions, which are easily ignored or pushed aside. We can work toward dignity, toward access, toward seeing the world as it is…” Or perhaps more importantly, toward seeing the world as it needs to be.

 

Amy Rasmussen is excited for the New Year and looks fondly back at 2018. She made some important career moves, changed homes, welcomed two new grandsons, and met her reading goal of completing 66 books. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

2019 New Year’s Resolutions!!!

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Happy New Year!!!

I’m so excited to enjoy the next six days of our winter break. So much love and laughter to be enjoyed along with morning daughter cuddles, football galore watched with my son, knowing looks shared with my wife when the kids do or say something intentionally or unintentionally hilarious.

There is, however, still work to do.  The pool needs upkeep, trees need trimming, and there is that old corvette that needs an oil change and some drive time. I still need to prepare content for my presentation at TCTELA and dig my old lesson plan template out of the Google Docs mothballs.

Also, some forward looking introspection in order, as so many of us do, in the form of a few New Year’s Resolutions.

  • Lose Some Weight

The weight of my feelings about our educational system wears me down. It weighs on my like a heavy coat on a summer day.  More of my attention needs be directed towards variables I control not those controlled by others. Be gone ye negative thoughts.

  • Eat Better

Too much of what I consume lately comes from Youtube and Netflix. Instead, more of my content should come from Kittle, Gallagher, Beers and Probst, just to name a few.  My professional library is extensive and 2019 can be a year to dive back into the “classics” and remind myself of all the amazing knowledge and experience sitting on the shelves in my classroom.

  • Travel More

So often, I am content to bury myself in my classroom and the work that needs to be done there.  Literacy exploration is quickly becoming my life’s work, but I can’t stay cooped up in my self built museum, curating the practices I’ve mastered and going back to the well over and over.  Brilliant teachers litter my building, my twitter feed, and the conferences I am so lucky to attend.  2019 will be the year I

  • Meet Someone

Brilliant teachers litter my building, my twitter feed, and the conferences I am so lucky to attend.  2019 will be the year I reach out more than ever before to make connections with people that can make me a better teacher.

  • Get out of Debt

So much of my day is regimented and planned down to the second.  Alarms bleep and bells ring and then the day is over just as quickly as it began.  I always feel like I’m behind on grading, parent contacts, and lesson planning and constantly building debt.  I resolve that 2019 will see me get back to the intricate and intentional lesson planning that lets me bring intricate and intentional lessons to my kids.  I’ll make time to communicate with parents and stay ahead on my grading.


Charles Moore knows that he is terrible at following through on resolutions but he also knows you can’t reach goals that you don’t set.  He’s excited for his second semester of graduate school and his second semester at Clear Creek High School.  He’s so thankful for the caring co-workers who’ve supported him during the recent heath issues that have affected his family. He wishes each and every one of you a successful and prosperous 2019.

Adopting a Persona as We Move to Adopting Workshop

I am committed and inspired to move into true Reader’s Writer’s Workshop after NCTE and a near semester under my belt in a new school.  I left for the conference in Houston with a plan to read The Great Gatsby in December, and as much as I wanted to totally scrap it and start with a routine inspired by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in 180 Days,  I didn’t.  

I paused.  

Although every classroom minute is precious and developing readers is the most timely need, I wanted to give myself time to process this shift, to think through how my classroom would run, and brainstorm how to help my students, who from my inquiries have only experienced the full class novel, navigate texts with more autonomy and independence.

Going from trained text regurgitation to full choice would have been a huge, potentially disastrous, shift for my students.  Since August, they have looked to me to create meaning, to judge whether their writing is “right” or “good,” asking what I think about the text versus presenting their own original idea.  These students will grow immensely from workshop, which makes me so excited for January, but I felt they first need scaffolding up to meaning-making and trusting their interpretation and ideas.

I created a Book Club atmosphere with students for our reading of The Great Gatsby, having students meet in “Discussion Tables” with their peers to process the text with each other.  As 180 Days suggests, I asked students to come with one question and one comment to their discussion tables.  Students were also responsible for close reading and annotating/sketchnoting key scenes of the text, commenting on development and language.  Their annotations served as a launch point for continuing and deepening the conversation. A Book Club-style approach allowed for a more structured release of responsibility to students while maintaining the shared experience of full class novels my students are accustomed to.  I stood back as an observer, listening in to their conversations, witnessing students make meaning together versus wait to be guided to a single answer or idea.

As the unit was primarily based on discussion and conversation, so was their culminating assessment, the “Persona Discussion.”  Students were given a choice of what character they wanted to embody, from the core characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan to more minor characters like Mr. Gatz or Meyer Wolfsheim, even “background” characters like the party goers were an option for students.  The core characters provided limited space for interpretation while added characters, like party goers, allowed for more creativity in the persona. Students signed up for a character and prepared by thinking through their characters in their journals.

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The discussion works like a Socratic Seminar, where students are the drivers of the discussion and can be adapted for both fiction and nonfiction.  I created this assignment for AP Language students who loved to debate and discuss in Chicago–they adopted the persona of Henrietta Lacks’ family, doctors, and author Rebecca Skloot after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  For Henrietta’s Persona Discussion, the central question of the discussion was a quote about medical ethics. 

Students felt that the smaller characters were given a voice, an idea we discussed earlier in the passage when examining the wealth and marginalization of “the other” characters in efforts to disrupt the traditional text.  

 

Maggie, who played Myrtle, said she liked feeling immersed in the book:  “At first, I felt like Myrtle would only ask questions to Tom or George, but as we all started being our characters, I thought about how Myrtle and Gatsby were actually more alike and could have been friends, and I wanted to ask Daisy about her marriage more.”  Jordyn said the discussion was better for understanding the web of deception because “…it was like seeing the book as a play or real life and it made our group discussions more real or, like, meaningful.”  After discussing the text as a reader so much, Riley, a reluctant reader who has learned, as he admitted, to “fake it,” said, “It was more fun to prepare to play someone than to think about the big ideas for a regular seminar.  It made me want to do well and really know Tom.”  

As we build into full workshop mode in January, students have a foundation for how to enter a text, methods for creating meaning, and more confidence in their thinking.  Students were engaged with this type of discussion and reflected about their enjoyment, so I am going to incorporate it into next semester, perhaps jigsawing the characters from students’ choice reading or book clubs together from different realms or as a way to review major characters and texts before the AP Literature exam.   We’ll see what other “personas” develop!

 

Maggie Lopez is enjoying Utah ski season while re-reading 180 Days as she preps for second semester, American Girls: The Secret Life of American Teenagers before bed, and The Poet X in class.  She wishes you a very merry, restful holiday season!

 

A Sneak Peek at the List I Sent to Santa

I’ve never had the winter break creep up on me like this.  Between coaching responsibilities, Student Council activities, and English IV team lead duties, I always kept an eye on finals week, not because I wished for the semester to be over, but because that week meant we were out of time and every minute up to that point better have been accounted for.

The changes in my responsibilities, duties, and campus freed me up, I’ve come to realize, to just flat-out teach. Thus, I find myself staring at one more week of school remaining in the semester, confident I’m living my best teacher-life.

So I thought I’d share a few items I sent to Santa in the hopes he’s thought I was a good boy this year.  I only included a few of the items from my list because I’ll probably just end up with a lump of coal:

Item #1 – A Really Nice Pair of Shoes

My wingtips are hand-me-downs and the soles are so bad that by the end of the day my knees and ankles feel like I’m almost forty years old. Wait…um…

Item #3 – Notebooks and Pens

I love notebooks and pens and after reading Amy’s list of teacher supplies, I’m hoping to see a Moleskin notebook or a pack of Flair pens in my stocking.

Item #7 – More Amazing Reading Experiences

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This is my book stack for the break.

I read a ton of books this semester, but most were assigned as required reading for my young adult literature class.  Since that class wrapped up, I’ve treated myself to Dry by Neil Shusterman and son, and I savored the immaculate The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.  I also snuck in the guilty pleasure known as a Lee Child novel. Past Tense, like all Jack Reacher books, ended before I was ready for it to be finished. Currently, I’m bouncing back and forth between Nic Stone’s new book, Odd One Out, and A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi.  I love both of these books and will be talking about them in my classes in January.

Item #8 – More Amazing Reading, Writing, Thinking, Talking Experiences in My Classroom

Thursday, I whet their literacy palates with the first three pages from Dry before we looked at the pairing of this piece by Leonard Pitts and “The World is Too Much with Us” by William Wordsworth.  I should have an Elf on the Shelf in my classroom so that maybe Santa will catch wind of the amazing thinking, talking, reading and writing that the kids are doing in room D120.

Item #12 – Organic and Authentic Professional Learning

Maybe Santa can bring me more learning opportunities like this most recent adventure with the whole class novel.  A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts is a great resource and I’ve read Gena’s post at least three times, but I can’t say enough about how my colleagues facilitated my exploration of the shared reading experience in a workshop setting. They handed me a blueprint and I took it and ran…away from boring, disengaging, traditional teaching practices.

Item #15 – More Experiences like NCTE

Co-presenting with a team from Three Teachers Talk is going to be one of those “career highlights.”  I may never get the chance to speak on a stage like that again and I refuse to take it for granted. I can’t believe I’m so lucky. My batteries recharged from meeting Cornelius Minor, receiving a giant hug from Penny Kittle, sitting slack jawed absorbing the power of Christopher Emdin. I run on inspirational people and those were just a few of the men and women I look up to. I’m flying solo as a presenter at TCTELA, and my session is about research writing in the workshop setting.  Bring your popcorn because this sesh is gonna knock your socks off. It will be fun, and a growth experience. ILA, in the fall, is the next big conference for which I’m crossing my fingers and praying.

Item #19 –  A Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl Win

Is that too much to ask?


Charles Moore loves watching college and professional football with his son, but he hates losing to his mother-in-law in fantasy football.  Maybe the third time will be a charm as they face off again this week in the playoff semifinals.  Perhaps an upset is brewing.  He’s so proud of his daughter’s Snowy Christmas Tree and his son’s tenacious love of reading.  

Gifts of Writing

It’s that time of year where the kids are restless, teachers are exhausted, and gift-giving season looms. What if I told you we could use our writer’s workshop time to help us in all three areas?

Whether you have some days this upcoming week with students where you’re still not sure what you’re doing, or if you’re looking for ways to ease back into the routine once we get back from winter break, today I want to invite you to think about ways we can encourage students to use their writing as gifts for the people in their life.

The Important Book

Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 8.08.38 PM.pngI love Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book and how versatile it is as a mentor text. From the imitable structure to the crisp imagery to the simple illustrations, this book consistently inspires some of the best writing all year.

A few years ago we used this book as a thank you for my son’s first grade teacher. Each child wrote a “Important” poem about her, which a parent compiled into a keepsake book. I’ve written Important poems about my children at different ages, including this one about my daughter Emma. A colleague writes Important poems about each of her students at the end of the year, giving it to them as a farewell gift.

How might students craft their own Important poems?

How to Live

I was first introduced to Charles Harper Webb’s poem a dozen years ago in a class taught by Tom Romano (note: that’s where about 90% of any good ideas I ever have originated — in a class with Tom Romano).

I think students have so much advice for the people in their life, and they are so often not asked for advice. How great it is to invite them into the conversation about how they think we can live our best lives? And how else might we complete the rest of “How to…”? Imagine the possibilities as students practice procedural writing in a non-traditional way.

Odes

Did you see this tweet from @jessica_salfia last week? It instantly instigated so much thinking and I have been itching to try it with students.Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 7.49.09 PM.png

I love the idea of writing odes about unconventional items. After seeing this tweet, I was getting ready to work with a group of elementary teachers. As I was trying to think of how to adapt the content of this tweet for younger students, I remembered my most favorite book of last year, Crown: Ode to a Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James. Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 8.14.12 PMThis book is such a beautiful way to take an ordinary moment in life and to expand on what these small moments mean to our lives.

What would happen if we invited our students to write unconventional odes? I might write an ode to a tradition in my family, or to a special memory. What would you write about?

Poetry Anthology

When I first taught honors 10th graders 13 years ago, I borrowed an idea from my colleague Leah Naumann and asked students to create a poetry anthology for a person in their life. Students were required to find a variety of poems and in a letter to the recipient, they wrote about the ways that each poem reminded them of their intended audience.

It was some of the best writing and most thoughtful analysis I read all year. Students read dozens of poems, thinking critically about how these poems might fit a person. They naturally thought about themes and symbolism. They read poems for deeper meaning in ways I had never managed to teach. It was inspiring. Then they compiled the poems and letters into a book form, gifting it to their person.

I knew this was a gift of writing in so many ways when a few years later a former student reached out to me. His mom had recently passed away after a long battle with cancer that had begun the year he was in my class. He told me that through creating that anthology, he found a way to express things to his mother that he hadn’t been able to articulate in words. He found peace in that after she was gone. What more could we ever ask for our writing but to help us to all find peace in this world.

How will you find ways to encourage your students to see the their writing as the gift it is?

Angela Faulhaber lives in Cincinnati, OH. When she’s not freaking out over Christmas lists and to-do checklists, she’s trying to focus on enjoying the small moments with her family. And to avoid all the germs that are floating around. She first heard about the idea of Gifts of Writing from Nancie Atwell and has loved the idea of creating space for students to envision a life for their writing beyond the classroom. 

Finding a Book to Crawl Into

I’m feeling a bit chaotic lately. The holidays are fast approaching on the personal front, but seemingly retreating on the professional front (we have how many days left until break?!). My reunion tour with freshmen requires more planning and more patience than I fear I have capacity for. My only child status is rearing its ugly head as my Dad prepares to have surgery today for that emperor of all maladies, and my mind is flying to all sorts of outcomes I can’t imagine dealing with right now. Additionally, I’ve decided that with no time and little energy, I’m going to commit myself to the madness that is Orange Theory Fitness and complete workouts that leave my aging limbs in such agony I’m walking down the stairs sideways. I needed the elderly assistance bar in the restroom the other day, friends. It’s been quite a season.

Needless to say, I need some solace (and a full body heating pad). No surprise, I’ve found it recently in books. Here are a few texts that have me feeling beautifully nostalgic, contemplative, and remembering the joy of learning as I try and hold it together on the outside, but not so secretly disappear into books.


Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, an accessible text on turning your writing ambitions into a practice that will bring both joy and fulfillment, has me laughing out loud, recommitting to my own writing life (her recommendation to 3tt5remember the power of short writing assignments make it all seem so…doable!), and finding pearl after pearl to share with my students about moving their own writing forward, specifically memoir.

For example, I can picture several of my students benefiting from Lamott’s advice to remember that perfectionism, both in writing and in life,  “is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Sometimes we all have such struggles letting go, we can’t even get started. We must be willing to release not only the formulas, structures, and sentence starters of writing, but also give ourselves permission to write in a way that brings us joy and releases pain without judgement from inner critics that can crush our work before it begins.

I also can’t let go of what Lamott suggests in being brave enough to write about those experiences that carry weight in our lives. Those memories that crush us beneath the wheels of remembering and try to halt all progress we can make toward a path of personal growth. Far too many of our students have such experiences, and writing about them can help some to process and release.

With a nod to the fears and reluctance that students in her own classes have when it comes to writing about what really matters to them, Lamont suggests that we:

Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on. (Lamott)

Lamott is witty, clever, and real. I plan to pull some sections from this book as mentors for both style and content. This text is a “warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps,” said the Los Angeles Times. I could not agree more.


My love of Anne Shirley was actually born through Canadian actress, Megan Follows. 3tt3The 1985 mini series on the trials and triumphs of fiery tempered Anne was a favorite of my grandmother, and we watched her two tape VHS version together until it literary broke.

Fast forward to today (I couldn’t help myself) when at NCTE in Houston a few weeks back, I found a copy of Sarah McCoy’s recent publication Marilla of Green Gables. I love a good backstory, so to see McCoy’s ideas around how the sometimes prickly Marilla Cuthbert came to be, made me smile. The text takes it’s liberties, and expands on some character traits that reach a bit from who these classic characters were in my mind, but overall it was a nostalgically tender read that took me back to a story I’ve loved since I was a girl. Having found a few Anne fans in my own classes, this is a great text to recommend.


 

Ruth Sepetys Salt to the Sea had me researching the World War II civilian tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff and sharing with my students the power of stories we don’t often hear, because history is too often told only by the voices of the winners.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has become an audiobook I can’t hit pause on.

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris is where I’m heading next.

Which books are you escaping into these days? Please share in the comments 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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