Thursday, November 16, 2017

Making a Plan for Revising Writing with Autocrat

If you've read some of my earlier blog posts, the topic for this post might confuse you. After all, I've written before about my reluctance towards using long checklists for writing, so you might be wondering if I've changed my tune.

The longer I teach, the more I'm constantly reminded of one truth about writing: there is no one, foolproof method for teaching it. Similarly, there are many different tools writers can use successfully to lift the level of their writing. Taking time for intentional revision is essential to the writing process, and a checklist can be a helpful tool.

However, as with anything, how it's structured and presented to writers matters. In my experience, to be effective, checklists that ask students to reflect on their writing and make a plan for changes must be reflective, accessible and reusable (meaning that students utilize it over multiple writing sessions).

With these criteria in mind, I set out to create a short, purposeful checklist to use with my writers for making a revision plan for their realistic fiction pieces. Since we are a 1:1 school (my students use Chromebooks), I decided to explore whether technology would help increase the effectiveness of the tool. In this case, an electronic version made sense for my students for a few reasons: they could access it at any time, it was impossible to lose, and I could see their plans with just a few clicks.

Google Forms was a natural fit for creating the actual checklist. I used the multiple choice grid to create a quick table with the revision question and different categories that writers could place themselves in (staying away from simple yes or no answers that don't encourage revision). As I was creating the form, I paid attention to how I worded the reflection questions, keeping in mind the mini lessons writers received throughout the unit when selecting what to include. I've found that less is more when targeting revision, so I usually err on the side of fewer questions (5-7 seems to be a good fit for my middle school students).

My next "wish" for the checklist was that writers would have a copy of their answers handy for future revisions. My good friend, Justin Birckbichler, suggested using Autocrat (an Add-on that works with Google Sheets) to generate a Google Doc of each student's response that would be saved automatically in their Drive. Students would receive an email with the attached Doc of their checklist answers, which they could easily pull up during future class periods when they needed ideas for revising their stories.

There's a slight learning curve to Autocrat, but with Justin's help, I was able to get it up and running easily. Here's how I did it:

1. First, I created the Autocrat template for the Doc that I'd like the students to receive in their email. Using the Google Forms revision questions, I made a table with two columns. The left column has the revision question, and the right column will show the student's answer to that question. To make this work with Autocrat, I simply copied the question and surrounded it with the tags << >> so that, when Autocrat is run, it knows to populate that cell with the student's response.
2. Then, I opened the response Sheet for the Google Form I had created and accessed Autocrat (by clicking Add-ons>Autocrat>Open). If you haven't previously added Autocrat, you may need to click the 'Get Add-ons' feature and add it to your computer. 

3. From here, Autocrat prompts you to create a new job and select a template. 
3. Next, check to make sure your tags from your template are mapping to the correct column. This is pretty simple: Autocrat provides a drop-down list for you to use to select the correct tag and will notify you if any of your tags aren't mapped (meaning they won't show up at all on the Doc). 
4. Autocrat will give you the option to send a PDF or a Google Doc. I prefer a Doc, because students can edit it after the fact (and mark off when they've actually made the revisions). I decided to name the Doc with the writer's first and last name (using the tags <<First Name:>> and <<Last Name:>>) to make it easy to find their checklist in my Drive, since Autocrat automatically shares a copy of each student's Doc with you. 

5. The next step asks you to choose a destination folder for all of the Autocrat-generated Docs. I usually make a new folder for each Autocrat job. The next few questions (about dynamic folders and merge conditions) didn't apply, so in this case, I just skipped them.

 6. Autocrat will also send each student an email with their shared Doc attached. Just use the email tag to make sure Autocrat knows where to send it. Make sure your Google Form has a space for students to fill in their email address, or this function won't work. You can also customize the email's subject and body text with information or directions for your students. 

7. The last step is to decide whether you want your Autocrat job to run on a time or form trigger. The former means that it will run every day at a certain time, while the latter means that it will run when someone fills out the Google Form. I always choose the form trigger, because this means that students will be able to receive their Docs shortly after filling out the Form. 

8. Finally, save your job and click the 'play' button to run Autocrat. 

Within a few minutes of filling out the Form (Autocrat does take some time to run, especially when a lot of students are using it at once), students will receive an email that will look similar to the image below. 

This is what students will see in their email.
They can then save the checklist to their Drive and access it any time they need revision ideas. In my classroom, I usually have them fill out the Form one day and make their plan the next day while reviewing their responses on the Autocrat-created Docs. Revisiting the checklist over several class periods shows students revision is way more involved than simply answering questions about their writing; rather, the checklist is a tool to help them plan for the challenging work of making changes to their stories.

The digital revision checklists have been working well for my writers. It's easy to find, impossible to lose and simple to utilize quickly during a one-on-one conference. Feel free to fill out the Form I used with my students to see for yourself how Autocrat works. If you give this a try, please let me know how it works for you and your writers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: Open House Speed Dating

To me, open house night feels less like a casual meet and greet and more like speed dating.

The similarities are uncanny.

I forego my usual casual blouse in favor of a classy dress that attempts to hide the fact that I'm still under 30 and in charge of a bunch of 12-and-13-year-olds. I check my teeth for stray bits of food. I smooth down my hair to give the illusion that I haven't actually been at this school for thirteen hours already. I choose my words carefully, hoping to convey the right balance of accountability and joy. I smile widely. I gesture wildly. I talk animatedly, hoping to convince parents that my version of seventh grade ELA won't be the soul-sucking experience some of them might have had.

I talk about choice, about passion, about my own personal educational approach. I talk and talk and talk and talk, and even while I'm talking, I know I'm forgetting things, forgetting to mention pieces of our classroom that might complete the picture I'm trying desperately to paint in 10 minutes.

The parents stare back at me. Some nod their heads, some let their eyes glaze over, some furrow their brows. A few questions. And then, they leave. Most will forget me. I will be reduced to an offhand anecdote shared at the dinner table, a persistent weekly email, or a name emblazoned next to a grade on a report card.

But maybe, when their child jumps into the car after school and immediately sticks his nose in a book marked along the top with my last name, or when she shyly proffers up a piece of writing that she's proud of, those same parents might remember that there's more to Ms. K than the slightly crazed teacher in a nice dress who talked way too fast for 10 minutes on a hot August evening. Maybe, just maybe, something that I said will echo through their heads, and they'll smile to themselves, content in the knowledge that seventh grade ELA doesn't suck too badly.

Those moments that I never get to witness, the moments I'll never be able to recount as evidence of my impact on children? The possibility that they exist is enough to make open house speed dating worth it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: Totality

We don't often think about the sun.

Despite its significance, it still manages to be a wallflower, blending into the fabric of everyday life. It only warrants a passing remark on certain occasions: a particularly beautiful sunset. A planned beach day, thwarted by its absence. A painful sunburn blooming across exposed shoulders.

We revolve around the sun, but most days, we feel like it revolves around us. To us, it only exists because we exist. We know it is remarkable, yet we think it unremarkable because of the simple fact that it is always there.

Until it isn't. Then, the sun demands our attention.

The day of the eclipse, we went about our routines. We went to school. We fiddled with lockers, unwrapped sandwiches, and sharpened pencils, but our attempts at normalcy couldn't hide the fact that the only thing on everyone's mind could only be found outside of our walls.

When the first fragment disappeared, it was as if an invisible current rippled throughout the school, bouncing from classroom to classroom. No one had to tell us. We knew, and we all wanted to look. Patience, normally a foreign concept during the best of times in a middle school, was nowhere to be found, but for once, we understood that we had no control. We had ignored the sun. It had waited for us to pay attention, and now that we were watching, it was our turn to wait.

When the time came, we clutched our flimsy glasses and clambered down the stairs and out the front doors. The humidity clung to us like a damp towel after a swim, familiar yet ultimately useless and annoying. But today, we didn't care. We were too busy watching the world turn upside down. Shadows were wrong, caricatures of their normal selves. The light was beginning to take on a faded quality, as if we had found ourselves inside a picture that had sat in the developing fluid for too long. We giggled nervously and used words like 'weird' and 'freaky' and 'strange' about the burning orb that usually elicited watery emotions like mild annoyance or slight appreciation.

As we spread across the football field and laid back on the manicured grass, we felt the air change, degree by degree. We eyeballed the glasses that looked like something you'd find in the back of a comic book, suspicious that something so frail could protect us from something so strong, but ultimately, curiosity won and we donned them, not caring about our ridiculous appearance once we looked up for the first time.

The sun was going. An unseen artist was painting over it with the deepest black we'd ever seen, stroke by stroke. Clouds stood out in stark relief, their borders sharper and more ominous than before. The sky deepened quickly now, turning from the sort of green you usually see before a tornado to a dusky lavender shot through with streaks of pink. Confused cicadas began their chorus, a melancholy dirge. The sun was going, and there was nothing we could do but watch.

We had been told what to expect, but they were all wrong. It was nothing like they said. No one could have found the words to explain what being surrounded by an endless sunset looks like. What goes through your head when you see a bewildered bird winging across the sky, his frantic chirps as if to say, "How did I miss this?" How you feel in that moment when you look up and see our most powerful light reduced to a slender glowing ring.

In that moment, our thoughts turned to the minutes we have had in our lifetimes. How some flash by you. How others drag, each second slowly tumbling over the next like pebbles caught in a slow motion landslide.

And then, there was this. One minute and fifteen seconds. This moment where time was frozen, yet hurtling forward much too quickly. We were suspended, our necks craned skyward, captivated by what we had taken for granted. We saw now that we were wrong to do so. We held our breath, and we tried our best to burn this fleeting moment into our memories. This feeling of totality. Of being here, yet also everywhere else where people were looking up.

As ephemeral as smoke, the moment dissolved. The first thin threads of golden light spun away from the darkness, and we looked away, finding ourselves wishing we could see it all over again but knowing that we couldn't. The sun had gone, but it had never truly left. Totality was not the extinguishing of light but the hiding of it, reminding us of the thin line between fearful awe and awful fear.

The eclipse had passed, but our minds would not be torn away from the sun. This moment will forever stay on the edges of our consciousness, pushing into our thoughts any time golden rays play beautifully on a dusty wooden floor, or a panel of light streams down between the gaps in the clouds and dapples the grass we are standing in. Now, we will often think about the sun, and we will remember that we revolve around it, not the other way around. When it is quiet, we will find ourselves in that state of totality once more. We will remember how a slight shift in perspective can change everything. And we will be grateful that we were there, looking up on the day the sun disappeared.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Doing Better

The other day, I tweeted out a simple question:
“When’s the last time eduTwitter made you think?”

My motivation was simple: I was feeling dissatisfied by what I was seeing on my Twitter feed. Too much of the same. Not enough that challenged me and my practice. I hoped that my followers might have some thought-provoking posts to share with me.

I got a few responses: some bemoaning the “echo chamber” tendency of eduTwitter (the same ideas being amplified), some sharing posts from ISTE (many of which I had already seen), and some singing Twitter’s praises as a great way to connect with other educators (which I don’t deny is true).

When I wrote that tweet, I hadn’t quite figured out the source of my dissatisfaction. I knew that it irritated me when I saw posts that were solely motivated by gaining retweets or likes. I knew that seeing the same surface-level discussions about inclusion and relationships left me feeling disappointed. I also knew that I needed to do something about this feeling of ennui that surrounded me every time I clicked over to my Twitter feed.

But it wasn’t until Peter Anderson sent me a message recommending that I look at who I’m following on Twitter that I realized what my problem was: it was me.

I had created a Twitter feed that was woefully narrow. It was my fault. My feed was full of big names pushing books, teachers trying to build up a brand, and, frankly, it was really, really white.

It’s not hard to see how this happened. Like many teachers, when I joined Twitter, I saw those educators who had a huge following and felt compelled to add myself to their ranks. After all, lots of followers = the best ideas, right?

Wrong. eduTwitter is just another example of how privilege seeps its way into everything. Those with the biggest amount of privilege have the easiest time getting their ideas and voices amplified.  Smaller voices (often minorities) get buried, and when they do get recognition, it’s often just a carefully curated sidenote to a larger self-promoting message in order to appear “woke” or “inclusive.” It’s easy to tweet about social justice at your convenience when you’re operating under a massive amount of privilege.

Most teachers would say that they care about social justice and creating inclusive classrooms, and I’m no different. But one look at who I follow on Twitter would show you that I am guilty of the same mistake a lot of white educators (on and off Twitter) are making: surrounding myself with people just like me. How boring...and worse, how myopic and prohibitively exclusionary. In fact, this thread confirmed exactly what I was beginning to realize on my own: who I followed sent a pretty strong message about the importance I placed on diversity and social justice. Talk about a wake-up call.

I could have come to this realization, felt bad for awhile, and then carried on with my Twitter grumblings without making a change. After all, it’s easy to ignore things that deal with implicit bias when you’re privileged. I knew I had to do something. It’s one thing to complain about the state of things, but it’s another entirely to actually do something about it. Succinctly put, I needed to do the work.

Peter (God love him) helped me out by offering to make me a list of accounts that would broaden my Twitter horizons. He was kind enough to send me 30-odd names of people who challenge the status quo in education, tweet about social justice in education, and those whose worldview is different from my own.  Already, I’m reaping the benefits and am finding myself clicking the follow button on new accounts as I delve deeper into threads about privilege and the huge amount of work that needs to be done on the part of white teachers as allies for our students and our fellow colleagues of color. And far too often, white educators think we are doing enough. We aren’t.

Changing who I follow may seem like a frivolous step, but I view it as indicative of a larger shift I’m in the process of making. It’s not enough to only do this, but it’s a start. As I’ve had to remind myself over and over again, teaching is a journey that’s fraught with self reflection and having to take a hard look at yourself sometimes (and, in this case, looking closely at things as seemingly innocuous as your Twitter feed). This is one of those times. As Marian Dingle said in her recent blog post, I must do better. Here’s to doing better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Turtle Hunting Weather #sol17

My memories do not smack me upside the head, dragging me down into a forced sort of reverie that cartoons and movies portray with their watery flashbacks and fuzzy recollection scenes. Instead, my memories trickle like a slowly leaking faucet, filling in bit by bit until my mind is awash with what used to be.

My slow spiral into a memory happened on Sunday.

Bits of sunlight streamed through the low-hanging trees, creating a kaleidoscope of light playing across the path ahead of me. As I walked along the wooded path with my husband, I felt a sense of familiarity overwhelm me. It was in the soft breeze. It was in the saturated greens of the surrounding foliage. It was threaded throughout the loud silence of the surrounding forest, teeming with bird calls.

And just like that, the last drop fell, and I remembered. There was no mistaking it. This was turtle hunting weather.

I remembered a coupon book, presented to me by my dad for my birthdays when I was younger. There was always one that simply read "Turtle Hunting With Dad," redeemable whenever the time was right for a traipse through the woods to search for the box turtles that were on the move during the Missouri springtime.

On hunting days, we'd step over the electric fence that kept our three cows from wandering down the road, my dad easily clearing the wire with his long legs. I was more cautious, having experienced the wrath of accidental contact (it felt exactly like a cow kicking you in the stomach, in case you were wondering).  As we headed towards the tree line, we'd avoid the cow patties that were scattered about like obvious landmines.

Once we were in the forest, I'd kick the decaying leaves as I scanned the ground in front of me, hoping to see a tiny head poking up or hear the scrabble of a turtle's clawed feet against the disintegrating foliage. My dad would do the same, checking near fallen logs and next to trees.

Lucy, our black Labrador, followed along, nose to the ground, intent on sniffing out the stealthy shelled creatures. At times, she would disappear, and my dad would remark, "Looks like she's on to something." She'd show back up a few minutes later, a closed turtle shell held delicately in her mouth. We had to coerce her to give up her prize, but in the end, the lure of finding more turtles was greater than holding on to the one she presently had.

Each time we found a turtle, I held it in my hands. Depending on the turtle, I either stared at a firmly shut shell, or into the tentative but curious eyes of its occupant. Sometimes, a particularly brave turtle would stick his head out and begin to pedal his legs, asking to be released. After all, he was on a mission (turtles travel to mate), and I was a particularly annoying roadblock. We never kept the turtles. Who were we to stand in the way of true love?

Before we released each turtle we found, we marked them. My dad always brought a permanent marker with him, and I would write my initials (KNM) and the date across the shell before setting the turtle down gently and continuing the search.

"If we find the same turtle next year, we'll know," my dad always said.

We never found the same turtles. That's not what mattered.

My memories may begin slowly, but they always end abruptly, truncated by reality. Without preamble, I was back in the present, walking down a forested trail with my husband. No turtles in sight. The days of turtle hunting coupons were long gone. I sighed.

"It would make me so happy if I saw a turtle today." Scott squeezed my hand, wordlessly understanding.

We turned the corner. Up ahead, something was on the trail. Due to the distance, it looked like a brown blob--could be a pile of leaves, a clump of mud-- but I couldn't help it. My heart fluttered. I dropped my husband's hand and ran forward.

Two amber eyes peered from behind a swiftly shuttered shell. A smile spread across my face. I shouldn't have doubted. It was, after all, turtle hunting weather.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I Think I Want a Kid #sol17

Sunday morning, I found myself face to face with approximately 50 hungry kids, armed with only two tiny bottles barely filled with milk.

This isn't going to be enough, I thought to myself, looking at the melee of hungry toddlers that swarmed around the area, searching for a bottle to latch on to. The kids were needy. Pushy. Whiny. But boy, were they cute. Even when they bumped against my shins with their heads in a not-so-subtle request for some milky goodness. All uncouth behavior aside, the sight of these kids stirred something inside me that I had never felt before: a longing to have one of my own.

I imagined myself, sitting in a sun-dappled room, holding my kid in my arms. I'd rock back and forth gently and hum a maternal tune as he slurped eagerly from a bottle, looking at me adoringly with big brown eyes. Sure, there'd be the whining and the use of brute force to get my attention, but underneath every head butt would be a subtle showing of love. In my mind, I could already hear my kid's first words: "maaa maaa."

Something warm brushed up against my legs, breaking me out of my reverie. I looked down. Two sets of hunger-addled eyes stared up at me. I have a job to do, I reminded myself, brandishing my bottles like a woman ready to head into some sort of milk-centric battle.

I stooped down. Instantly, I was surrounded. One kid clambered into my lap, while another circled around me, searching for an opening. I expertly inserted a bottle into each waiting mouth, tilting them upright for maximum milk flow. Must be my maternal instinct, I thought to myself. My smooth moves were rewarded by smacking lips, rounded bellies and slow blinks of pleasure. I'm a natural, I thought proudly.

As the bottles quickly emptied, I looked up at my husband.

"I think I want a kid."

He rolled his eyes at me, taking in the scene in front of him with a bemused smile on his face.

"Katie, we are not getting a baby goat."

Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Writing Workshop Uniform

On days when I know I’ll be heading to the tiny studio where I take barre classes, I take time in the morning to gather up the equipment I need to be successful during the hour I spend sweating, stretching and trying to get my heels up a little higher in relevé. My “barre uniform” consists of yoga pants, a loose tank top, a headband for my hair, grippy socks for balance, and flipflops to wear when I leave the studio. Each item has a purpose, and my barre classes wouldn’t be nearly as successful if I didn’t come prepared for the occasion.

Getting ready for a class of writing workshop requires a similar approach. No, I don’t have a certain outfit that I wear on workshop days (I do have an apron...more on that in a minute…), but over the four years I’ve used this approach to writing, I have developed a sort of “workshop uniform,” or a list of tools that I keep near me or on me when I am circulating the room and meeting with writers.

Like most things in life, figuring out what tools to use has involved a lot of trial and error, and I’m certainly still in the process of refining my workshop uniform. Here’s what’s working for me and my students right now:

What’s In My Apron
Yes, I have a teacher apron. Yes, I know that makes me look extremely dorky, but it holds the tools I find essential:

  • Teacher aprons look much more
    acceptable when there are two
    of you wearing them.
    Post-It Notes: I know this probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever run a writing workshop, but Post-It notes are supremely handy to have nearby. I’m always finding new uses for them. Smaller ones can be used to create visuals to leave with students (I often used them to show a boxes and bullets structure during our argumentative writing unit), or they can help capture an idea to save for later. I like to give larger Post-It notes to writers who are in the process of revising and expanding: they can layer the large sticky note over the original writing and easily flip it up to see their progress from one draft to their next. Another use is for writers who are working on volume. They can start by filling a small Post-It note with writing and eventually graduating to the next size up as they increase their stamina and volume. The possibilities are endless!
  • Tiny Anchor Charts: I like to make a few miniature-sized copies of charts that we created during the mini lesson to hand out to writers as the need arises. Though we hang the larger anchor charts around the room, there’s something about having a personal tool to offer to a writer that feels more intentional to me than simply pointing at the anchor chart. Having these available makes conferring run more smoothly for me: I simply pull out the chart, use it while conferring with the writer, and leave it behind for the writer to use. The writer can tape their own personal anchor chart in their journal to reference at any time--I have a giant tub of washi tape in our writing makerspace exactly for this purpose.
  • If/Then Keyring: Our wonderful curriculum coordinator, Julie Paur, took the Lucy Calkins Units of Study If/Then scenarios and turned them into a handy-dandy keyring. It’s a cinch to throw these in my apron and use them to confer on the fly. Each card on the ring has the “If/Then” scenario, which presents an issue a writer might encounter, how to support that writer, and what to leave the writer with (questions to ask or a tool that could be created by using the aforementioned Post-It notes). I love to look at these when planning conferences, and I feel much more confident when sidling up to a writer when I know I have this tool (literally!) in my pocket.

What’s In My Hands
Each day is different, but when I am conferring with writers, I always have something in my hands:

  • Conference Clipboard: My biggest challenge is keeping a good record of which writers I’ve met with during workshop. I’ve tried approximately 8 zillion approaches: using Evernote to type up thoughts (felt disconnected from the conference), creating a binder with a separate page for each writer (too bulky), carrying around a stack of my beloved Post-Its to jot notes that are later organized in a binder (lost ‘em). After reading this post by Lanny Ball, I realized I had been overcomplicating things: all I needed was a simple table with a box for notes on each writer. Lanny’s template allows me to quickly check to see who I’ve talked to (and the teaching point I made during our last meeting), who I need to check back in with, and who I haven’t talked to at all. This portable and practical solution makes tracking conferences much easier for me. Sometimes, the simple approaches are the best.

  • My Own Writing: I write with my students. If they’re writing, I am too. I like carrying my journal with me when conferring because, sometimes, showing my own writing and how I dealt with a particular issue is the best way to approach a teaching point. If a writer is, for example, having a hard time elaborating with description, it’s easy for me to flip to a particular paragraph of my own piece that needs more description and workshop it right there in front of the writer. Show not tell, right? Carrying my own writing around also makes the teaching points I do make more authentic: what I recommend carries more weight, since I’m doing the same writing I ask of my students.
  • Demonstration Notebook: After reading DIY Literacy by Kate and Maggie Beattie Roberts, I started a demonstration notebook that I could use for one-on-one conferences or small-group instruction. My demonstration pages usually identify the tip or strategy, how to use it, and include an opportunity for the writer to try it out themselves. I try to think ahead with what tips and techniques would benefit the writers in the room and create these demonstration pages before class starts. During workshop, I can easily use my demonstration notebook to conduct a quick conference. This requires some forward thinking (it isn’t as easy to create these on the fly), but this year, I’ve found myself reaching for my demonstration notebook because it goes a step further than just leaving the writer with a tip to actually has them try it out!

My writing workshop uniform is in a constant state of flux as I read more and learn more about the insanely complex nature of the teaching of writing. Conferencing is not easy. Much like getting ready for a tough workout class, getting ready to dive into a full day of writing workshop requires preparation and commitment. Having the right tools at my disposal helps me focus on what’s really important: helping my students grow as writers.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: A Very Writerly Party #sol17

My room was packed. Some faces familiar. Some were not. All were united by the simple fact that every single one of them was a writer.

My colleague, Liz, and I had forty kids undertake the Slice of Life Challenge with us this year. Some were 31 Slicers who wrote every single day in March. Some were 17 Slicers, who wrote every school day.  Numbers aside, we all were celebrating the cultivation of a writing habit--no small feat.

In our opinion, no Slice of Life Party would be complete without some literal slices, so we went with a sweet slice (a suitably springy sheet cake from Costco, adorned with yellow, purple and pink flowers) and a savory slice (Papa John's pizza). As the writers munched, they searched through their plethora of written slices, searching for one to share.

One by one, the edible slices disappeared. Their absence was replaced with something equally delicious: good writing. The room filled with the pitch-perfect adjectives, humorous one-liners and emotional topics of the various voices in the room. Each writer was unique, each piece like a fingerprint that left its own individual mark on me. I listened with a huge grin on my face. I couldn't help it; moments like these are why I do what I do.

Our time together was all too short. We gathered together for a quick picture, and then, the writers were off, spiraling away like balloons released into the air. Their words lingered though. They hovered over the room like a fine mist, shimmering with their beauty and power.

I hope that, tomorrow, I will be able to look past the hectic testing schedules and frenetic pace of a middle school in April and see the shadow of those words. I hope I will remember the quiet power of writers bravely sharing their words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Teacher With the Dragon Tattoo

There was a rumor going around about me at school.

Like all good rumors, it struck the perfect balance of being just believable enough to gain some traction while still keeping its National Inquirer shock-level status.

There was a rumor going around about me at school...that I had a tattoo of a dragon on my belly. And Mrs. Porter, the math teacher on my team, had started it.

It began casually enough. "Hey, while you were gone on Friday, I maaay have told a few of the girls that you have a tattoo."

I looked at Mrs. Porter. "Well, I do have a tattoo." And I do. A tiny one, on my hip. Barely big enough to bear mention.

She laughed. "Yeah, well, I told them you have a giant tattoo of a dragon on your stomach. Like a huge one. I said that the tail wraps around your belly button. They were skeptical at first, but by the end, I think they were actually starting to believe me."

I grinned. "I like it. I am now The Teacher With the Dragon Tattoo."

Like all good rumors, it persisted, bouncing around like a superball thrown full force in an empty room.

Maybe it was because it's April. Maybe it was because I was bored. Or maybe I rather liked the idea that students thought that their English teacher with a penchant for floral dresses and bright lipstick secretly had a big-ass tattoo of a dragon winding up half of her torso. Whatever the reason, I decided to fan the flames of the rumor that I had a flame-breathing creature hidden under my shirt.

So today, at lunch, I sauntered casually into Mrs. Porter's room, noting that the three girls who were the original recipients of the Dragon Tattoo Rumor were all sitting within earshot. I leaned over, engaging in a casual conversation with Mrs. Porter. She turned to me.

"Did you know that you're supposed to have a midlife crisis every 29 years? I learned it from Donna on Parks and Rec. Something about Saturn's journey around the sun being 29 years long."

I thought for a moment, pondering. "Hmm. Well, I'm turning 29 in a month. Wonder what my midlife crisis should be..."

I made a show of thinking deeply about this thought-provoking question. "Ooh! I know! I should add on to my dragon tattoo," I said, just loud enough so that The Rumor Mill Trio could hear.

Slam. The sound of palms hitting the desk. "WHAT did you just say?!" Victoria, one of the three girls, twisted around in her seat in a move that would make a chiropractor wince, sheer shock painting her freckled features.

"I...I said I was going to add on to my tattoo?" I said, trailing off and doing my best to look supremely confused.

"SAY IT AGAIN!" she demanded, getting the attention of her two friends.

"My tattoo? I have a tattoo on my stomach." I sighed. "It was a stupid college decision, but yeah, I have a tattoo of a dragon. It's kinda big." I gestured to my stomach, my hands stretching to accommodate the size of my imaginary ink.

Three mouths formed perfect Os.

"Oh my God." 
"We didn't believe her!"


There was a rumor going around about me at school. And I intend to keep it going.

Friday, March 31, 2017

31/31: Target Touching #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge!
This afternoon, over a giant burrito bowl from Qdoba, I told my husband that I needed to go to Target "just to touch things." 

I know that sounds really weird. But this week has been stressful. And sometimes, I like to wander the aisles of Target and browse. I don't actually buy anything. I just look, pick something interesting up, and put it back. It's oddly soothing. 

I think Scott ultimately agreed to let me go Target Touching because he saw my eye twitching as I shoved forkfuls of chicken and black beans into my mouth. He knew it was in his best interests.

So we went to The Land of the Red Bullseye (pretty sure that, according to their business model, the bullseye is my credit card). We started in the Dollar Spot (or, as I like to call it, the Steal Your Dollar Spot). I picked up a pair of socks with a cross-eyed bunny on it. Scott handed me a fuzzy headband with bunny ears, which I immediately donned. As we laughed, I felt a thread loosen in the snarled yarn ball of stress that I was carrying in between my shoulder blades.

We moved on to the clothing section. I touched some very soft pajama pants. Scott found some swim trunks that were covered, inexplicably, with cats.  We debated the pros and cons of him wearing them in public (there weren't many pros), and just the thought of him showing off his cat-clad legs at the swimming pool was enough to unravel a little more of my balled-up anxiety. 

We strolled over to the Easter section, hand in hand, and engaged in a rousing debate about which Easter basket best suited each of us. Scott picked a fuzzy bunny basket for me, and I handed him a basket in the shape of a Despicable Me minion. We analyzed the different types of Cadbury eggs and the relative merits of each (original is perfection, in my opinion, but he feels that caramel has its place). Scott plied me with many fuzzy stuffed bunnies, chicks and lambs because he knows I adore stuffed animals and soft things. I hugged each in turn. He was starting to see the power of Target Touching.  

As we made a left to head back towards the front of the store, I leaned into my husband and rested my head on his shoulder. This movement was much easier than it would have been a mere hour ago, because the Target Touching had worked. The ball of stress that had been wedged between my shoulders had been reduced to an inconsequential pile of untangled strands. 

But it wasn't just the act of window shopping that had helped me feel a little more balanced. Target Touching is way better when you have a partner. And lucky for me, I happen to be married to a guy who is totally okay with indulging my weird yet fun attempts at relieving stress.  

Thursday, March 30, 2017

30/31: Happiness is a Good Book (Club) #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 

I walked down the sidewalk with a purpose. After all, I was already technically late. 

I zoomed past the frozen yogurt shop with its lime green chairs and array of flavors. Past the cute clothing boutique with floral dresses that practically beckoned me. Finally, I stopped, ducking into the doorway of a dimly-lit wine bar.

In the corner, I spied Liz and Dawn.  I slid into the booth, glad to be somewhere I knew I would leave feeling energized, not drained. And then, we were three.

The door opened, and Gail bustled in, sleeping baby in tow. And then, we were four.  The few. The proud. The faithful book club attendees. 

The dark wood of the table contrasted with the shiny pages of the menu that the server plunked down in front of me. I flipped and pondered. What appetizer would best complement the heavy conversation that was sure to accompany the dark Southern Lit novel we had read this month (Joe by Larry Brown)? Would the server be able to recommend a wine that matched the preferences of the protagonist in the book, one with a bouquet of tobacco and banana moon pies that had a gritty finish? 

I eyed him. The perfunctory way with which he took our orders made me decide not to risk the joke. 

With the matter of food and libations taken care of, we leaned forward on our elbows and began to chat. Our conversation started like it always did: casual talk. We vented, we shared, we sympathized. 

Our food arrived. We dug in, and our discussion turned towards the book. One thing I love about our book club is that we really do talk about the book, which I've learned is a rarity in some circles. Gail's eyes flashed as she described her anger at the book's ending. Dawn hypothesized about a character's motivation, and Liz shared her insights that, as usual, made me think deeper about the story. Our conversation vacillated from heavy analysis to light observations, from thoughtful wonderings to a hilarious conversation about the actor who best represented the protagonist in our mind's eyes (in case you were wondering, we decided on a combination between Dog the Bounty Hunter and Mickey Rooney post-face lift). 

Sometimes, I just listened, happy to soak in the thoughtful commentary of my friends and relish the simple pleasure of a bite to eat and a book to discuss. 

As with anything that's fun, time flew, and before I knew it, I had to leave. I waved goodbye to my friends and stepped back out onto the sidewalk and walked past the adorable boutique, past the frozen yogurt shop and to my car. As I started the engine, I realized that I was already looking forward to next month's meeting.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

29/31: The Beauty of Nothing #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge!

I lie face up, eyes closed. My hands, fingers splayed, rest by my sides. I breathe. The yoga mat I'm on is an island, one that refuses to play host to worries or stress. 

The light changes as the instructor passes by, casting a brief shadow as she moves slowly past me. I hear a gentle shushing sound, and suddenly, a fine mist surrounds me. Tiny droplets rain across my face, and I am enveloped with the soothing scent of lavender and mint. 

"Don't think about everything you have to do once you leave here."

The instructor's voice begins to blend with the slowing thumps of my heartbeat that echo in my head as I fade into the sort of beautiful nothingness that is so rare for me these days. The song trickling through the speakers in the room crescendos in time with the rise and fall of my chest. Everything is rhythmic; everything is in sync. 

I feel my muscles relax, my tendons like shoelaces that are loosened on a tied-too-tightly pair of shoes.  I feel my eyelids stop fluttering. I feel the room melt away as the lines of reality blur. I feel the simple luxury of the absence of feeling, the freedom to truly think about nothing.   

"Start to return. Become present again." 

I slowly open my eyes. The late afternoon sun seems amplified, brighter than normal. I feel the strange sort of unease that comes with returning to normalcy, the same feeling I get when I arrive home after a long trip away. This is how things should be, but I'm not quite ready to be here yet.

The transition is abrupt. I hear the traffic rushing by outside. The clock on the wall next to me admonishes me with its hands that are resting on the 6 and the 12. My mind suddenly feels like the Dursleys' house in the first Harry Potter book when all of the letters come flooding in, despite desperate attempts to keep them out.

I'm not quite ready to be here yet. I close my eyes again. I breathe. I put my brain on silent. Because right now, I want to stay on my island of escape for just a moment longer. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

28/31: Conquering the Sweet Potato #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 
Last night, I decided to try something new for dinner. 

I know. This is dangerous, especially on a Monday. Nobody wants to cook something worthy of a spot on Worst Cooks in America on the Worst Day of the Week. Even worse, if you're anything like me, a ruined dinner means a hard left into hangry territory. Trust me (and my poor husband). No one wants this. 

But I'm also easily bored, especially when it comes to food, necessitating some level of variety in my diet. So that's why I was hunkered over my island yesterday evening, desperately trying to make sweet potato "rice" for a Mexican-inspired dish. I had spotted the recipe on one of my favorite food blogs. The blogger, with all of her culinary finesse, made the creation of the sweet potato rice look simple. Just grab your spiralizer (a device that shreds vegetables into an approximation of noodles), rotate the sweet potato until it transforms into ribbon-like curls, then chop up said spirals into rice-sized bits. As Ina Garten would say, "How easy is that?"

Spoiler alert: it was not that easy, Ina. 

Like most things, at first it was. Vibrant orange curls came out of my spiralizer like pencil shavings from a particularly aggressive sharpener. But quickly, my potato resembled a very fat pencil. Which, if you know anything about sharpening Ticonderogas, you know that they don't produce many shavings past a certain point, no matter how hard you try. 

I began to feel the first inklings of frustration, but I kept my cool, as if I was on an episode of Cutthroat Kitchen and trying to recover from a grievous cooking faux pas. I tried different techniques. I pressed harder, trying to force the sweet potato to bend to my will. It resisted all attempts at transfiguration. I put the obstinate spud down on my island. Great. What am I going to do now? 

Thankfully, Scott saw me struggling and suggested trying my food processor. Oh yeah, I thought. I own one of those. I cubed the potato and threw it in the processor. A few quick pulses later, I had sweet potato rice. "Good call," I told my husband, admiring my orange confetti.

From there, it was a matter of throwing the rice in a hot pan, seasoning it liberally with my favorite garlic-jalapeno seasoning and stirring in the rest of the accoutrements: black beans, pico de gallo, cilantro and some cubed chicken. Add a dollop of sour cream, and dinner was served.

And it was pretty good, if I do say so myself. It was the kind of dinner that makes you look forward to having your leftovers for lunch. High praise in my book. 

So all's well that ends well. Maybe I wouldn't make it past the first round of Chopped with my culinary prowess, but, with a little help of my practical sous chef, at least I can try something new on a Monday and survive to tell the tale. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

27/31: Ms. K, I Have a Book For You #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 
"Ms. K? I have a book for you." 

I stood in the hallway, next to the math classroom doorway. I must admit, my mood was rather sour. After all, the laundry list of Reasons Why Today Sucks was long:
  • It's Monday
  • It's the first day back after spring break
  • It's raining
  • The hallway smells like wet middle schoolers (which sort of smells like wet dog...just with more Axe)
So I had my reasons. But then Jessica told me that she had a book for me. 

If you're a teacher, I hope you have a Jessica in your classroom. She's the kind of kid who's impossibly cool for a seventh grader. She's witty, sardonic, whip-smart and really, really nice to boot.

 And she reads. Oh man, this girl reads. We swap books like baseball cards, and more than once I have found myself thinking as I turn the pages of yet another novel, Jessica would love this book. We like our reading material sad and gritty. A good book to us is one that causes an existential crisis with every sentence. A little morbid, but hey. Books should make you feel something, in our opinion.

So when I stood in the hallway this morning, feeling every bit of the weight of the Monday right after spring break on my shoulders, hearing "Ms. K? I have a book for you" was exactly what I needed.

And just like that, Monday didn't seem so bad. Sure, the hallway still smelled. The rain still speckled the windows of my classroom. But at least I had a good book to look forward to, thanks to one of my wonderful students. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

26/31: Writing is Hard #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 

Today, while working on the third round of revisions for an article with my wonderful co-author Peter Anderson, I was reminded of something that I knew to be true. 

Writing is hard.

It's reading what you wrote and hating it...and then reading it again a few hours later and thinking, "Hey, this isn't half-bad." 

It's a delicate tightrope walk, one that necessitates the balance of thinking about your next step...but not too much, lest you waver in the same spot for much too long and come crashing down to the ground. 

It's reading criticism after criticism and outwardly cursing...while inwardly cringing, because you know that the feedback is valid and that you do have more work to do. 

It's two-and-a-half hours cemented to the same spot, working and reworking one sentence until it's perfect...only to change it again a week later because every idea surrounding it is different and your pièce de résistance no longer fits. 

It's knowing when to turn off your inner editor and just write...and when to go over your words with a fine-toothed comb, searching for the tiniest of imperfections to smooth over. 

It's the satisfaction of writing the final sentence and declaring yourself finished...while still knowing that writing is never really finished. 

Writing is hard. 

But if I gain nothing else from this uniquely frustrating and rewarding experience, I will walk away with empathy for anyone else who has ever tried to write something worth reading. In fact, I guarantee that the next time one of my writers tells me how hard writing can be, I will look them dead in the eye and say, with conviction,"Let me tell you. I know."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

25/31: Baby Showers & New Beginnings #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 
The baby shower was over. We had admired Emily's belly, impressed at its girth and her stories of strangers' propensity to stare at it as if she was unaware of its dramatic appearance. The gifts had been opened, revealing numerous necessities, including a countless amount of adorable onesies (my contribution was a flamingo-themed set, because who wouldn't want their twin girls to look like flamingoes?). 

The baby shower was over. My brother, dad and I had assembled the dual stroller, which wasn't as hard as the complicated instructions made it out to be--just a few clicks and snaps, and we had a baby transportation device. We had all eaten copious amounts of Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets, hummus, baby carrots (healthy!) and the carrot cake I had made last night (uh...not healthy). 

The baby shower was over. We had played baby-themed games, one of which turned out to be educational. Who knew that a baby pigeon was called a squab? (Apparently, my dad.) We had sat and listened as Nick and Emily revealed the names of their babies, both of them with tears in their eyes, and felt happy that they had chosen to share their decision with us.  

The baby shower was over. So we loaded up the newly-assembled stroller with the gifts, remarking that soon Nick and Emily would be strapping in two tiny babies. My mom tied the two pink balloons that had served as decorations to the handle. My brother began to wheel the stroller back up to the apartment he and Emily were staying in temporarily while waiting to move into their new house. I followed behind him.

As I watched him head up the hill leading to the apartment, the balloons bobbing merrily above him in the soft Georgia breeze, I marveled at how funny this scene would have appeared to me just a few short years ago: my tough brother, pushing a stroller with cutesy pink balloons? Never in a million years! 

But today, I was struck at how right it all looked. He looked content and completely natural as he pushed, easing over the speed bumps and talking about the smooth ride the wheels would give his daughters. He looked happier than I had ever seen him. 

The baby shower was over. But very soon, something new would begin. A family would double in size. Two people would become parents. Two beautiful little girls would be born. Everything would change. 

But in this moment, as I watched my brother with a stroller, I realized that this change was exactly what he wanted. What they wanted. He was right where he had chosen to be. 

And if the way he pushed that stroller is any indication, he's going to be the best dad. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

24/31: A Diaper Cake is Born #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 
When Becca, my sister, first told me that we were going to make a diaper cake for my sister-in-law's baby shower, several thoughts ran through my head.

What the hell's a diaper cake? Is it edible? Does this involve some sort of disgusting chocolate-posing-as-poop sorcery? Why are we calling attention to what probably tops the "Worst Part of Having Kids" list? 

However, I soon learned that a diaper cake is literally a cake made out of diapers. I know very little about child-rearing, but I do know that babies are excellent at eliminating, so since Emily (my sister-in-law) is having twin girls, it made sense to buy her a crap-ton (pun intended) of diapers. 

In lieu of handing a loved one a 128-count box of Pampers at a baby shower, some bored  creative person came up with the concept of a diaper cake. Since the image we were working off of had been pinned on Pinterest approximately a bazillion times, I was confident that Becca's decision to make one of our own was a good one. It was what one does for a baby shower, apparently. 

So, this afternoon found me handling way more diapers than I ever planned to touch. To create a diaper cake, basically, you take a Pamper, place it on a flat surface, roll it up until it resembles a little diaper taquito, and secure it with a rubber band. You repeat this tedious process until you have hands that smell like baby powder and enough rolled diapers to squish together to create a cake tier. Rinse and repeat until you have three "layers." Voila...a diaper cake is born. With the two of us working together, our cake came together in less time than it would take for me to figure out how to put a diaper on a real baby. 

While I got to work on the (edible) carrot cake that I was baking for the shower, my sister fancied up our confection with some pink ribbons and a few well-placed bows. On the top of our cake, she added the finishing touch: a pink rubber duckie. 

"What do you think?" she said. 

I looked up from my mixing bowl and assessed the situation. On one hand, it's a cake made of diapers. On the other hand, it's a cake made of diapers. It was practical and just a little bit silly. Even me, who usually scoffs at things that only exist for the sake of being cute, couldn't help but smile.

"It's perfect." 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

23/31: Eating Costco Hot Dogs with my Dad #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 
My dad handed me a foil-wrapped object, its silver sides glinting in the fluorescent light as I took it from his hand. It was still warm. 

I hadn't really asked him to buy me a hot dog at Costco, but at this point in our relationship, it's sort of a foregone conclusion. 

You see, my dad is the type of man who appreciates a good deal, especially when it comes to food. All you can eat buffets, two-for-one offers...and the warehouse club hot dog, which is a screaming good deal in his book. After all, you can get a hot dog and a drink for under $2. Where else can you eat an entire meal for such a low price? This is the rhetorical question my dad asks each time he hands another still-steaming foil cylinder to me. 

This thrifty tradition goes way back. On Sundays, when I was younger, my parents would make a weekly Sam's (another cult club warehouse store) run to stock up on household necessities in bulk. With three young kids in the house, we went through things like toilet paper and cereal quickly, necessitating these pilgrimages to the kind of club where, instead of throbbing music and colorful light shows, you're surrounded instead by elevator music and fluorescent lights that wouldn't be out of place in an interrogation room. My brother, my sister and I adored these trips. It was here that we learned another one of my dad's methods for seeking out a good food deal: the free samples.

"Think of it as an appetizer," he'd say, leading us past the 64oz bottles of olive oil and the kiddie-pool sized tubs of mayonnaise to the first of many free food oases. Bite-sized sections of sandwiches, pizza rolls, crackers with a tiny square of "interesting" cheese on them, communion-sized cups of juice...we consumed it all, trailing behind our Free Food Sensei and learning from his wise ways. We'd chew thoughtfully and comment on the merits of each sample as if we were food critics. This was a process, after all.  

At the end of our journey, our appetites sufficiently whetted, my dad would leave my mom to wheel our teeming cart through the checkout and take us over to the food counter (conveniently placed so you have to walk by it to leave). He'd pull out a ten, buy us all hot dogs, and present them to us. After the vigorous sampling, it felt like we had earned it. 

Tonight, after a quick spin through Costco to collect supplies for my sister-in-law's baby shower this weekend, I knew exactly what my dad was doing when he kept walking once we pulled up to the checkout lane. I followed him, and sure enough, I was rewarded with the first foil-wrapped hot dog I'd had in quite some time. 

"Only the best for his girls," my mom commented with a smile as she and my sister took their own pieces of nostalgia. 

When I was younger, I coated my prize with ketchup and added mustard as an afterthought. These days, I take healthy doses of ketchup, mustard and relish on my hot dogs. Tonight, I unleashed my inner kid as I decorated my dog, delighting in the waves of happy memories that flowed over me as I did. 

My condiment preferences may have matured as I have gotten older, but there's one part of me that's the same: the part of me that still loves eating a Costco hot dog with her dad.