Monday, May 29, 2017

Some Days

We typically find ourselves drawn to this blog when we're on top of the world - when things go so incredibly, perfectly right and we are overwhelmed with love and good feelings.


One good day is all we need. It drives us; it feeds us. But what about those other days? The ones when you wish you never left your bed. The ones when you find yourself in pajamas at 5 o'clock. The ones you replay through your head and wish you could do over. The ones that make you cry. It honestly never occurred to us to use this blog to write about those.

We're very lucky Crazy Reading Ladies. We've had far more stellar days together, celebrating kids and books and authors, than most anyone. We have the best jobs on the planet; we have each other. Not a month goes by that we don't stop and say, "How did this happen?" We are optimistic people who spend an incredible amount of time celebrating good.

But sometimes we flop. And on those days we come to the blog, too.

We're not perfect. We know that, but we need to be honest: it ain't all sunshine and lollipops. Some days we know we could be better.

It's the curse of parents and educators everywhere; the pressure that comes from being called a "life-changer" can be crippling. The truth is, some days aren't our best days. Some days we don't work miracles. Some days we make mistakes but that "life-changer" thing makes us dwell on the fact that it wasn't perfect, instead of just brushing it off as one of those days.
 
Well, we have a story about one of those days.

Last Friday we held our first All In! team activity in over two years. We were stoked. This was our biggest year to date and the book - Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys - has carved out its place in our collective heart; it's safe to say it's our favorite. This year had already exceeded our expectations in so many ways and Friday's event was going to be the cherry on top of the sundae. We had talked about our plans for months - we ordered supplies back in February and strung rare and precious minutes together to craft every detail. It felt good. We hadn't brainstormed and laughed like that in a while. We remembered those whole-group activities from years ago. We were both excitedly anticipating that feeling once again. It didn't come.

When Friday came, we found ourselves trapped in a meeting as "Go Time" approached. By the time we finally arrived, the kids were loud; they were excited, but they were loud, and it took way too long to give directions. It took too long, period - the activity we planned would take five-to-seven minutes ended up taking more than half an hour. Kids got antsy. Kids asked to go to the bathroom and were found by the Principal wandering the halls. Some kiddos that remained in the gym walked away from their groups, uncomfortable with the social aspect and unsure how to take part in a collaborative effort. This was a first, and we didn't like how it felt.

 But the truth is that we tried. We thought on our feet and changed the game - omitting one piece entirely and changing the objective of another. We tried. We planned well, but it wasn't good enough. We knew right away why it flopped - everyone wasn't engaged at the same time. It's an easy fix, really. We should just chalk it up to a lesson learned: some days our best isn't good enough.

But first we have to move on. We have to realize that some days are better than others, and recognize that all days deliver some modicum of good.

It's not easy. Just like our students, we have a tendency to catastrophize: did this ruin them for life? Will they come back? What if we lost them for next year? We admit we allowed those thoughts to swim through our head - we even verbalized them - until we saw the pictures.

Sometimes we must take a less-than-stellar afternoon and do what we ask our students to do: look at what we did right. We pulled off an after-school activity on Friday of a long weekend with an eclectic mix of kids. A few hundred kids. We said we would do it and we did it. We had colleagues show up to help. We planned from our hearts. We put in time and effort and energy. We didn't do it half-way, it just wasn't what we thought it would be. And that's okay. Some days are like that.
And some days you see a child who has never attended and after-school activity show up and find her place.
Some days you hear kids shouting numbers in Lithuanian to welcome their teammates.
Some days you see 7th-grade boys laughing hysterically as they scoop colorful plastic spheres into laundry baskets.
Some days you hear kids quoting a book they read four months earlier.
Some days you look up and see your best friend in a matching t-shirt.

Some days that's all you need.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dear Ruta

Dear Ruta,

Days later, we are still struggling to come up with words. On February 17 the two women who never stop talking were brought to a tear-filled, head-shaking halt. It was a day filled with nothing but good and we aren't sure how to thank you. We don't feel like we can adequately express what happened that day and how grateful we are, but we're going to try.

Let’s start with the story of the T-shirts. 

Every year we order T-shirts for our readers.  They like them because they’re middle school kids and, hey, free shirt!  We like them because it gives them an external way of identifying themselves as readers.  It helps them find each other.  It shows that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. 

We always choose colors carefully.  Our first year of t-shirts we chose blue and yellow because they are our school colors.  The year after we ordered shirts in five different colors to align with the factions of Divergent.  For Unbroken we ordered camouflage green, for The Finest Hours – stormy sky blue.  Of course this year, everyone just assumed the shirts would be gray.

But that was something that we knew we couldn’t do.  The idea of putting this book, full of life and love and strength, into the hands of kids and then swathing them in gray?  It just didn’t feel right. 

See, we Crazy Reading Ladies do a lot by feel.  For example, we knew Between Shades of Gray was “the book” for this year without ever actually speaking about it.  Most years we do exhaustive research, compile lists, divide reading duties, and talk endlessly.  This year, we found ourselves planning activities and timelines without ever having the “Are you saying ‘yes to this dress?’” conversation.  We just felt it.

So we wracked our brains for colors that would make sense…variations of blue and white and black and other colors that could fall “between shades of gray?”  It still painted such a dreary image.  White?  Too boring.  Mary’s preference – slate (or gray, if you must) blue – was too close to last years’ color.  That’s when Erin suggested the colors that felt right. 

As much as gray felt wrong, these colors felt right.  Our feelings were validated when we logged into our t-shirt vendor of choice and saw that they carried colors that were exactly right.  We made mock-up shirts and stared at the proofs on Mary’s computer screen.  That feeling...

Please don’t think us too sappy (or crazy), but it reminded us of a certain July evening in the basement of a Boston restaurant.  After gathering ourselves outside and ineffectively trying to calm each other with “We’re calm.  Stay calm.  You’re calm, right?  Me too.” we walked into your open arms.  You embraced us before you even spoke to us.  It was as if we’d known you for years.  And it felt right. 

Our kids felt it, too.  Without realizing they would meet you that day, our kids were honored to understand the meaning behind the colors. We told them we were gathering to take a picture to send to you.  Picking up their shirts that morning, 8th grade boys - who are too cool for anything - gasped when we explained the color choices and said, "Ohhhh, that's awesome!"

Our kids feel connected to you.  From the beginning you’ve been tweeting at them, emailing them, smiling at them from the selfie we both have framed in our offices.  But more than that, they love your book.  Not only is it accessible and engaging, but it’s beautifully written and tells an incredible story.  Our kids simply devoured it.  Never before have we gotten the student feedback that we got this year.  “I want to know more.  I NEED to know more!”  “Do you have Salt to the Sea?  Please tell me you have Salt to the Sea.  I NEED TO READ SALT TO THE SEA!” 

Teachers aren’t supposed to use the word love.  We’re supposed to say that we “care deeply” and use euphemisms like “respect” as if “love” itself is a dirty word.  But we CRL do now, and we have for quite sometime , feel that eliminating love from the vocabulary of the classroom does a disservice to our students. 

When students read something that speaks to them and makes them want to learn more about their own heritage and the world they live in, it’s appropriate to use the word love.

When self-proclaimed “non-readers” finish one book and rapidly move on to its partner, it’s important to use the word love.

When a students’ eyes light up because their name has just been spoken aloud by the woman they hold at the same level of esteem as Harper Lee or Tom Brady, the only appropriate word to use is love. 

And without using the word love, we can’t explain Friday, February 17th.  We can’t explain the feeling that transcended the miles, pouring in like sunshine from where you sat in your office a thousand miles away.  Without love we don’t know how to describe the auditorium packed with 332 rapt adolescents who got to meet the woman who wrote the book that changed their lives.  Without love, we don’t know how to explain how every single one of those students silently defied their Assistant Principal’s directive to begin dismissal. 
Without love, how do you explain how 332 students knew to stand, en masse, without direction, to show you the shirts that came together to create the Lithuanian flag? 


And this brings us back to the t-shirts.  Besides being driven by instinct and what felt right, there was something else motivating the t-shirt color choice.  We kept thinking about that Skype visit - what you would see on your computer screen when the call connected.  We couldn’t let you see 330 seats filled with gray.  Instead, we wanted to honor you and your story; to at least try to convey what you mean to us and our students. We wanted to show you what you had done. We made sure you logged in to see an auditorium full of love.  

With Love and gratitude for everything, 
Mary and Erin

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Things

#ALLIN17 was revealed! December 13, 2016
The Crazy Reading Ladies don't have classrooms next door to each other anymore. More than Mary's administrator status, our reduced proximity has proven to be the most difficult adjustment we CRLs have had to make.

Over the years, some of our favorite moments occurred in doorways. In the hall between classes we'd share sweet anecdotes, vocabulary lists, student work samples, and the occasional eye-roll. During All In!, we'd be in and out of each other's rooms constantly, talking to students about the book and hearing the insightful, passionate reactions of our readers.

This time around we hear the comments individually, only able to share with the other on the rare occasion we (wo)man a mutual lunch duty or indulge in a Saturday pedicure.

And, so - as the finish line to All In! 2017 draws near - we have come to a conclusion: our kids love this book.


They seemed surprised somehow; delighted really, at how much they're enjoying this journey. They love the historical accuracy and the intrigue of a forgotten story. They love the human struggle and the relationships explored. They talk about its powerful, earth-shattering punch - how upsetting and unbelievable that something like this could really happen. They love the brisk pace and the short chapters. Dormant readers who approach books cautiously with side-eyes and a ten-foot pole take a copy when we tell them to try it. "Read the first three chapters and if you don't like it, bring it back." That's the CRL's deal and so far no one has returned a copy. No one.

Everyone loves Ruta Sepetys. And we don't know how it happened that we were so lucky; lucky enough to cross paths with this incredible writer and beautiful person, lucky enough that she's reaching out to our readers and following us every step of the way. Lucky enough that we get to share how her book is changing lives. Lucky enough that we get to thank her. It's just too much lovely.

It's gonna be a good year.

Here's one of the videos we created for our kiddos featuring the official #ALLIN17 theme song: Stand in the Light.



Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Power of the Read Aloud

Several days ago our All In! 2017 title was revealed: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. It's a haunting tale about Stalin's lists and the deportation of millions of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. It's beautifully crafted, incredibly well-researched and exceptionally important. You should read it. More on the book and our reveal later, we promise!
All In! 2017: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
As part of our kickoff, we hosted a book fair at our local Barnes and Noble; for the first time, we performed a read-aloud as part of the evening's program.

On the hour, an announcement was made and people moved to the back of the store.  Fathers sat down next to daughters. Younger siblings settled in beside big brothers. Some people didn't even sit. One mother stood next to her two teen aged children, her eyes filling with tears as Mary began. Busy toddlers stilled and looked up as we read - it didn't matter what we were reading, just that we were reading. Due to one of those unforeseen, serendipitous CRL twists, we each got to watch the other as she read.
Mary reading aloud from Between Shades of Gray

And while we can't take credit for how positively transfixed our audience was by the first three chapters - this due entirely to the extraordinary storytelling abilities of Ruta Sepetys - we can profess the power of the read aloud, a practice oft-forgotten in a world of "turn and talk" collaboration and "teaching on your feet" dictum.

Reading aloud is typically associated with elementary school. Erin talks about her pre-CRL years - the ones she spent teaching first and second grade. And she ended every single day with a read aloud.

The kids packed up a full thirty minutes early, only to surround me and listen as we read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Henry and Ribsy, and The Indian in the Cupboard. Looking back, I'm shocked to realize that we probably got through eight or ten books each year. Together.

It was sacred; we finished every book we ever started.


One year on the last day of school, my administrator appeared in my doorway, ready to usher us off to the Prize Day assembly.

I had three pages to go until the end of Frindle.

My pace picked up as she began signaling me that we had to leave. I looked up at her and tried to communicate, "Please. Not yet." The last few pages of the story are when Mrs. Granger writes to Nick. He's all grown-up now, but at the end he gets a letter and he finds out that his fifth-grade teacher has been rooting for him and his word all along; he learns that she's proud of him. We had to finish. Of course we finished. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't about a thousand times more relieved than I was embarrassed at being the very last class to file into the assembly that day.

The power of the read aloud is no secret to the teachers who spend their days with emergent readers, saying things like "Circle time" and "Criss-cross applesauce!" but for whatever reason, we forget about it in middle school.

A read aloud to close out Pajama Day
But reading aloud is a tool that no teacher should ever permanently remove from their toolbox.  Mary remembers, from her days in the classroom, that spending a day reading aloud can result in a hoarse voice and exhausted person...after all, as school progresses the chapters get longer and the classes rotate.  Reading aloud a 20 page chapter is four times harder in 8th grade than it is in 5th.  But it also leads to greater engagement and improved comprehension.  If you don't believe us, take it from Brianna.  She's now in 11th grade, and when asked what book changed her, she talked about To Kill a Mockingbird.  She shared that Ms. Cotillo read almost all of it aloud and that she still thinks of that book every day.

Yesterday, we Crazy Reading Ladies were invited to read Between Shades of Gray aloud to about fifty 6th graders. It was pajama day. When Erin got downstairs, desks were pushed out of the way, kids sat on the floor or lay sprawled out on their winter coats. One boy lay on his back staring up at her, his mouth hanging open.

"They took me in my nightgown," she began.

Ever seen sixth graders so quiet?
No one moved. No one went to the bathroom or needed a drink. No one said anything, except to whine each time she paused to look up at their teachers and inquire about the time. Everyone was sad when it ended - sad for the school day to come to an end.  On a Friday.  At the end of Spirit Week.  

As students get older, the adults in their lives mistakenly assume they don't want to be read to anymore. After all, they know how to read now. The events of this last week made something abundantly clear to us: our adult assumptions can add a dose of bitter to one of childhood's sweetest milestones. Proclamations of "You can read on your own now!" often lead to the end of time spent together reading aloud.  And parents are eager to regain those twenty minutes at the end of the day that could be spent doing dishes or laundry or simply putting ones tired feet up and enjoying a moment of silence.

But before we walk away from bedtime stories, may we ask: now that you can cook, isn't it funny how everything still tastes better when your mom makes it?

Why should that landmark thrill of learning to read result in the loss of a comfortable lap (or parka) and the warm embrace of a good story?

Middle School teachers: read aloud to your kids.  It will pay dividends you cannot measure on educator evaluation rubric (though you *can* use it as evidence for I.A.1 and II.A.2 if you want to). Parents: read aloud to your kids.  Even the big ones.  Even the ones who can read for themselves.  The snuggles and feelings of peace will bring more satisfaction than an empty laundry hamper.  Promise.  

Monday, October 3, 2016

Chatham

A few of our cherubs. 
"But what'll we do for our Three-Peats?"

"We'll take 'em to Chatham! All we need is us and a bus." 

"Okay, when you just said 'us and a bus,' I started to get choked up. That's perfect."

Five years ago we wondered if the administration would let us take our readers to see a movie. This year, we sought permission to take 58 middle-schoolers to Chatham, Massachusetts.

And they said yes.

Chatham, a quaint, touristy beach town nestled on the Atlantic coast was the setting for The Finest Hours, the real-life story of the most daring rescue in US Coast Guard history...and it is less than a two-hour drive from our middle school. Sometimes life hands you a gift and you need to smile and accept it with gratitude. We Crazy Reading Ladies knew what we had to do.
One of the best days, period.
Kids remember the wonderful stuff. In their time at HMMS, our 8th graders had watched Three-Peats attend the Boston premiere of Divergent and have their very own luau in honor of Unbroken's Louie Zamperini. Now it was their turn.




Waiting to climb the lighthouse.
Crafting a special experience for our Three-Peats has - very quickly - shot to the top of our yearly to-do list. We need to honor the kids who stuck with us for three years. We need to validate the 8th graders who deemed reading a book worthy of their time and social risk. We need to celebrate their success and show them what they mean to us. This year yielded fifty-eight Three-Peats. We were ridiculously excited to plan this for them and managed to keep it under wraps for months.

Though the trip itself was a surprise, the kids knew something big was coming. In our school "Three-Peat" is part of the kids' vernacular. Bestowed on the 8th graders who have gone All In! each year of middle school, it's a title which many strive to attain - some even set it as a personal goal from the time they enter our building and step into the midst of our crazy. Occasionally, when we walk the halls of our neighboring elementary school, kids will stop us and say things like, "I can't wait to go All In!" or "My brother is a Three-Peat! And I'm gonna be just like him!" Our kids deserved this.

So on May 20, we loaded a bus and took 'em to Chatham.

The weather was picture-perfect summer-gorgeous. We visited the Atwood House and Chatham Historical Society where we became the very first to view the Rescue of the Pendelton exhibit, made especially to commemorate the events surrounding The Finest Hours.

We marveled at a three-hundred year-old house, viewed collections of seashells and pottery, and fingered shoes and dresses worn centuries ago - by obscenely tiny women.

We picnicked on the beach, where the sight of 58 teens tossing their shoes aside and racing to the ocean made tears fall silently behind our CRL sunglasses. We watched kids skip rocks, turn cartwheels, and play football. We saw them take selfies and examine crab shells and write "All In!" in the sand.
Three-Peats hit the beach in Chatham.
We pointed out the Chatham bar where, in the middle of a nor'easter sixty-four years earlier, Bernie Webber and his crew braved the breaking waves and rocky terrain to cross into the open ocean and save those stranded aboard the lifeless Pendelton.
"36500 this is station Chatham, do you read me?"
Don St. Pierre - keeper of CG36500 - came to meet our kids.


We visited the US Coast Guard station and touched the walls and walked the floors where the real heroes had lived and breathed and worked. We climbed the lighthouse steps, conquering fears and feeling - if only for a moment - like we were at the top of the world.



There she is! CG36500.
And we saw the boat. Through a beautiful twist of fate - perhaps we have Bernie himself to thank - the CG36500 was in Chatham that day getting a new coat of paint for her upcoming summer outings on the Cape. We spoke to men whose names and faces we recognized from the book and let our hands hear the story again as we walked around the boat. For real.

To our Three-Peats: we love you.
It was one of those days spent in celebration of good. There was magic and joy and laughter everywhere we turned that day. And it was another for which we had no words. Without verbalizing it, we both felt like there was so much wrapped up in that day. Another year, our fifth successful All In!, Mary's new administrative position, and the sight of her daughter taking her place among the Three-Peats.

After a year filled with so much change, it was beautiful to know that some things stay the same. We wiggled our toes in the sand and looked around. The Crazy Reading Ladies aren't going anywhere. We'll always have each other. As long as we have our kids and a good book - as long as we have us and a bus - we'll all be okay.





Sunday, July 10, 2016

Home

  The International Literacy Association conference is in Boston this year, something that made us squeal with excitement last year. There's just something fun about playing host to thousands upon thousands of book lovers. 

We arrived yesterday mid-morning and, after locating the rooms for our various sessions and checking out the technology set up (2 years running of last-minute tech disasters makes a CRL a little twitchy...) we hit the exhibit floor. After reuniting with a lifelong friend, meeting a woman with whom we've exchanged dozens of emails, and meeting Snuffy, Mary sighed to Erin, "I love it here."

More than once yesterday we found ourselves explaining: during the rest of the year, we're excited. We're giddy and wound up and overwhelming. But we're always a little bit off. When the world around you doesn't respond to life with the same level of enthusiasm, you sorta feel like there's something wrong with you. But then we get here. These are our peeps. This is our tribe. And everything slides into place and we feel like we belong. 


 
Tricking out the badge in true CRL style. 

 
Have you met Snuffy!? She's got a great story to tell!

 
Ruta Sepetys. Play it cool. Stay calm. 

 
Dan Buyea!! Hmmmm...what's that box?

 
Duck...duck...GOOSE! And Tad Hills! 

 
Bein' classy with Renee Ahdieh

Sigh. We love it here. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

You Told Me

We have a tradition at our school. Each 8th grader writes down something a middle school teacher said - a piece of information, an encouraging word, an inside joke - that has stuck with them. We compile the images, throw in some pan and zoom effects, add some music, and show it to a packed, already-weepy auditorium the night of 8th grade Promotion; the kids enjoy making it, and the teachers and parents love seeing it.

We call it "You Told Me."

Our inspiration came several years ago when we sat in on one of Darren Kuropatwa's sessions at the BLC conference in Boston. It spoke to the power of words and how - good or bad - we have a keen memory for how someone made us feel at a particular moment in time.

It's fascinating to watch the students think about their moment. Some of them make us laugh out loud, some make us cry, others require explanation (one of our colleagues apparently confessed how much she loved eggplants, and more than one child chose that as their middle school memory a full year later!) What comes together is a patchwork as brilliantly diverse as the children we teach. It's incredibly, beautifully, awesome.

The book that brought us together
This year, as we gathered the images, one in particular caught our eye. She's one of our beloved All In! cherubs, and when we saw her photo we gasped. Given over 500 days of instruction, and three years' worth of memories, she picked the moment we asked her about a book.

She is not a dormant reader by any means, nor does she struggle with reading. She's  a voracious reader - a girl who goes through multiple books a week and with whom a conversation can always begin with "Whatcha readin'?"  During one such conversation she answered with a familiar title, and we immediately started talking in the way all book lovers are familiar: "Oh, I LOVED that book!" "How far have you gotten? What do you think!?""We HAVE to talk about it!"  A few email exchanges with her mother, and we met our girl at Panera for muffins, hot chocolate, and an hour of wonderful conversation.

If we needed anymore proof that books are the way to build relationships with children, she just told us.  Her middle school memory came from the moment she realized that books have power to bring people together. It was the moment she felt validated. It was also the moment two Crazy Reading Ladies swarmed her desk during homeroom, but hey! She was reading a fabulous book!

We got another reminder later that same week as we welcomed our new recruits - the 5th graders who will come together as the Class of 2023 and will begin middle school this September. Giving tours to the newbies that day were sixteen superlative 8th graders. Before we let them loose to visit classrooms, one of the tour-guides approached Erin and said, "I remember when I came to visit in fifth grade. You asked me about my favorite book and I told you I had just read The Hunger Games. You told me you loved me already!"

It was a conversation that hadn't registered with Erin; a quick and friendly exchange that teachers can and do have multiple times a day.  But for this young lady, it was an important memory: her first impression of middle school.  Once again, The Crazy Reading Ladies come face-to-face with the power of books for building relationships.  We opined about it in this post; we preach it in our conference presentations: books bring us together. They provide generation-gap-bridging topics of conversation, transport us to different places and times to give us common experiences and friends, they are the things nervous 5th graders, reflective 14 year olds, and giddy reading teachers have in common. These are things we know, believe, and proselytize.  But when it comes from the mouths of our students, it has so much more power.

As teachers, if we really consider how incredibly powerful our words are each and every day, it's paralyzing. There's the possibility a child will remember exactly what we said to him and then carry it the rest of his life. It's an incredible honor. And it's damn scary.  But when we talk about books, we aren't paralyzed by the overwhelming power.  We can put our fears aside and just talk, just BE with these kids, authentic and real. And that's what they'll remember.