Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Eyes Have It

"Did you know? Did you know? Did you know that it's all right to wonder?
There are all kinds of wonderful things.
Did you know? Did you know? Did you know that it’s all right to marvel?
There are all kinds of marvelous things.- Fred Rogers

After a night like Thursday, we can’t help but look around and marvel.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, the All In! 2019 book, is set in 1945. While that feels like ancient history to our middle schoolers, there are folks just down the road who experienced World War Two first hand. We'd reached out to a local assisted living facility when we read Unbroken, and the time felt right to do so again. We suggested Salt to the Sea for their monthly book club, and asked if they'd be willing to share their discussion with some 12 year-olds. Stunned that youngsters would read such a serious book, they said yes.

Mary getting a history lesson
from the youngest attendee.
Last Thursday was THE night. Gathered around cookies and warm apple cider, our hosts talked about rations and blackout curtains, about fears and worried parents. They shared memories of beach patrols and Pearl Harbor and FDR speeches on the radio. (No TV! Just imagine that!) Despite a 70-year age difference, readers were united in their love for the Shoe Poet and in their disdain for Alfred. Names like Hitler, Stalin, Leningrad, and Lithuania rolled off the tongues of twelve year-olds. Adult jaws dropped as children spoke intelligently about naval disasters and the expense of mounting a recovery effort. We debated whether one decision could truly change someone's life and if morals were fixed or flexible. As ambassadors for the unseen awesomeness that is Middle School, Mary and Erin couldn't have been happier.  Our kids interacted with octogenarians with ease, because they were all readers. That night we bridged the generation gap, and it was all because of a book.
She's engrossed.  Look at her hands!

The conversation in full swing, Erin posed a question about the author's use of children in the novel, and Mary slipped over to her laptop. No one paid much attention; we had purposely left the screen on so the audience would become desensitized to its presence. Mary clicked a few buttons and the Skype home screen appeared. The speakers gave us away; that Skype dial tone is LOUD! All eyes turned to the bed sheet draped over a closet door, and then one child read the name: "Ruta Sepetys." "RUTA SEPETYS?!" "Wait, what!?!" "Oh my gosh, are you kidding?"

And there she was, a thousand miles away, smiling and reaching out her arms for a virtual hug.

Everyone loves Ruta. 
It’s no secret that Ruta Sepetys is our favorite. You meet her, you love her and that’s that. There’s something about her that is so genuine, so full of love and sincerity that you feel like you could sit and talk for hours. (And it’s our goal to do that very thing. Seriously. Our dream is to find a way to be CRLs who hang out with Ruta Sepetys full-time. We’d wear matching t-shirts and form a literacy justice league. There it is. Out in the universe!)
They soaked in every word.  

She lit up the room and filled every heart. She acted as if there was nowhere else in the world she'd rather be. If you’ve ever wondered what magic looks like, look into the eyes of a child who is being heard by her favorite author. Ruta shared secrets and answered every question. She validated and encouraged and connected. She made every person in the room feel valued and special.

On Thursday night we lost ourselves in the marvel of it all and watched our kids watch her. In their faces we could see the thrill, the joy, the awe. We watched their hands, clutched together in nervous anticipation as they approached the screen for their moment. We saw their smiles - wide as could be - as they listened to her speak to them, as they thanked her, as they turned away and returned to their seats. Their faces mirrored our own. 

Face to face with her favorite!
Ruta stayed on the screen until every child who wanted to ask a question had asked - a full ten minutes longer than we'd asked of her - and then it was time to say goodbye. Everyone waved and clapped and headed out into the chilly New England night with a smile on their face. Well, ALMOST everyone. 

Vin doing his Alfred for our hosts.
Mary's son Vinnie is in 6th grade now, and he joined us Thursday night for his first official "All In!" experience.  Literary shenanigans are nothing new to Vinnie; he's been an honorary participant as far back as 2013, when he fell in love with The Hobbit.  He's been enjoying Salt to the Sea, but he'd far rather spend his evening playing FortNight than talking about books with a bunch of strangers.  So it was with quite a bit of grumbling that he agreed to come along for the evening.  He arrived with his mom early, as usual, and eyed the cookie tray while he helped two Crazy Reading Ladies set up the activity room.  As he distributed pens and candies, Mary casually called him over. "Hey Vin, come sit next to me." When Ruta's face appeared on the screen for our test call, Vinnie lost his breath. He had a private audience with his favorite author.  The smile!  He chatted happily with her, even performing his best Alfred impersonation, and then solemnly swore to secrecy as the plan was laid for reconnecting later in the evening.  When "later" came and Ruta answered student questions, Vin leaned up against his mom and said, "Thank you for forcing me to come." 

So why is it that we're hinting that Vinnie didn't leave with a smile on his face?  As the families headed out and the crumbs were dusted off the table, Mary noticed Vin sitting quietly by the computer.  She gathered up his coat and hat and said, "Come on, bud. We're ready to go." He looked at her with the most sincere confusion and asked, "But aren't we calling back to say goodbye?"

And we think that's pretty marvelous. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

All In! makes it better.

Teaching is hard these days, certainly harder than when we first started.  Heck, LIFE is hard these days.  Epidemic-level number of students come to us with anxiety and social emotional needs.  Our news feeds are full of violence and hatred.  Parents are scared, and so are we.  This is HARD.  And because we are who we are, because we choose to stay in education even when the job description expands to include counseling and trauma care and responding to the sound of gunfire, because we love our students, we find ourselves asking, "how can we help?"

And this week we realized something: the way we can help, the way we can make things better, is to keep on doing what we're doing:  All In.   

She was so, so happy!
On Thursday, October 25th, we invited our 2018 Literary Leader for the ceremonial unboxing of the 2019 All In book.  Prior to her visit, students ventured guesses and waged debates as to what the book would be.  Teachers pleaded, central office staff pried for intel, and the Crazy Reading Ladies sat back and enjoyed every suspenseful minute.  The video team news studio was tense as Grace peeled back paper and tape, digging through piles of tissue paper.  When she finally unearthed Ruta Sepetys' Salt to the Sea, a cheer erupted and cries of "I KNEW it!" were shared.  (The kids ALWAYS know exactly what it was going to be....after it's revealed.  All of them.)

And as much as we enjoy the lead up to the reveal, the days that followed are what we really want to share.  
What's it gonna be, 6th grade?
Reveal day happened to land on the first of two half days for parent conferences.  Through the magic of our PCC and our local Barnes and Noble, we were able to set up a table in the school lobby where families could purchase a copy of Salt to the Sea.  The conversations that happened at that table will keep us going for a long, long time.

Sixth grade parents, who have heard about the program from friends and neighbors told us they were excited to live this experience with their children. They commented on how eager they were to know the title, saying things like, "You guys kept this going for a long time! Every day I'd be like, 'Did they reveal the book yet?' I was dying to know!"

Truth is, this was a pretty short turnaround, but we do love messing with people.
Reveal Day banter. We amuse ourselves.

Seventh-graders have a special bounciness about them. They've been there, done that, and they are choosing to do again. We've earned their trust. They know the book is an opportunity; but more importantly, they know they're gonna love it. One dad plopped his money on the table and declared, "We are officially All In!"

Our eighth graders are already emotional (and it's only October.) They know what this All In! means - it's their 3Peat Year, an honor bestowed on the middles who have participated in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. This year is particularly special because we chose this book for them. They began this journey with Between Shades of Gray and together, in Salt to the Sea, we will "finish the story."

We sold out. Twice.
Parents told us how much they loved getting the chance to read with their child, having something to talk about, to learn about, together. "How did I not know about this? I went to college! When I read Between Shades of Gray I was devastated. I never heard a word about it. It's only because of you that I know any of this happened. I can't wait to read this one."

One mom began an "All In! All In! All In!" chant as she approached the table with her eighth grader. With three kids through our middle school, this mom has participated in six All In! iterations. Her son is in 8th grade now...this will be her last. Her eyes filled as she took her copy of the book. "I think this is so incredible, what you guys do. I read the books with my kids...I read them all. Lord, we even got through The Hobbit! I'm going to miss this."

When Mary went to the 6th grade wing for her own son's conference, she overheard a conversation happening with another family in which the student was sharing what makes middle school better than elementary.  Chief among the reasons - All In.  All In makes it better.  

All In! 2019 - Reveal Day!
Thursday night, Erin and Mary visited Barnes and Noble to stock up on books (The cashier asked if we were buying the exact same books.  Yes.  Yes we were.  Hey, Kiddo, Bridge of Clay, and People Kill People if you're curious.) While we were there, we ran into students who proudly held up their copy of The Book, smiles as wide as could be.  We heard from parents who said they had to leave work early to bring their child to the bookstore so they could start reading as soon as possible.  Some parents would read with their child, some good-naturedly admitted they'd have to wait until their child was through, but almost every adult said they'd be reading, too.  Time and again, Erin and Mary said, "You're going to love it.  It's our favorite. We just can't wait to talk to you about it!"  It felt so good to be able to share our passion with so many people.   

Our Literacy Leader before heading back to the high school.

That brings us back to reveal day, to the anticipatory moment when Grace revealed The Book.  It turns out it wasn't as suspenseful as the CRL believed it to be.  It would seem that there was a glitch with the news that morning, and the title of the book was inadvertently revealed at the start of the broadcast.  Oops.  We were unaware, so we carried on with the show, and revealed the book with as much pomp and circumstance as ever.  And you know what's amazing about that?  460 students knew that our surprise leaked early, but not a single one told either Erin or Mary.  Not a single one.  After the reveal, students smiled and waved and talked out how they just KNEW it would be that book, but not one of them told us that our moment wasn't as big as we thought it was.  If you know middle schoolers, you now they absolutely love to point out mistakes, but not a single one breathed a word to us on Thursday or Friday.  It's like they knew that we needed that they knew that they needed to take care of us.  And they did.  ALL of them. 

This week has been a reminder that, when life leaves us feeling lost and overwhelmed, there is something we can do to make it better.  We can lean on each other, on our students, on our community, and we can go All In.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

All In 2019: More to the Story

Posters went up on Tuesday afternoon; the teaser video debuted this morning.

All In! 2019 has begun.
It's time to finish what we started

Sure there's still the reveal itself to get through...and there'll be book fairs and timelines, quizzing and scheduling, field trips and community events. Oh, and countless emails to administrators, publishers, managers, and colleagues.

But it all seems manageable now, right at this moment, standing at the start of Year 8.

The continuation of each
of our previous selections
This marks the latest we've ever selected a title for All In! Simply put, we were waiting for the right one; we were waiting for magic to happen. And happen it did - one Saturday morning in October - and we knew it just as sure as we've ever known anything that THIS was the book for our kids this year.

And before the All In! crazy train takes over, we're stopping to celebrate the wonder of today. Today there was just excitement.Today the kids were reminded of what's in store for them. Today there were moments with dozens of students who *had* to come talk and share their guess for the new title. Today there were smiling, bouncing kids who forgot about their middle school problems for a while and instead focused on the lyrics of a new Avril Lavigne song.  Today there were declarations from no fewer than four 8th graders who - without even knowing the title of the book - have vowed to read it and love it because this is their Three-Peat year.
The best-dressed kid in the cafeteria

Today was the return of the comfortable chaos that drives us. The return of the anticipation, the thrill of diving in headfirst without seeing the bottom. This is our familiar. This is where we belong.

We are so, so lucky to get to do what we do.

And our story is just getting started.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Jordan Sonnenblick

All smiles in the book signing line
At approximately 8:17 am, an unsuspecting seventh grader hopped down the stairs headed toward the water fountain. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two Crazy Reading Ladies talking to a man in a blue sweater. In a scene straight out of a movie, the child - staring at the back of our guest - froze mid-stride. His mouth fell open and his face flushed pink. He extended his pointer finger and mouthed, "Is that Jordan Sonnenblick?"

Playing with the jazz band
The moment of wonder experienced by our thirsty pre-teen friend was just one of many from that day. April 12: the day our students had waited for, the day we had so carefully planned...there was just something special about it. Looking back, maybe it was a lot of little somethings. Before he ever stepped foot in the auditorium, Mr. Sonnenblick looked at the two of us and said thank you. "Thank you for making such a big deal out of this. You guys really went above and beyond. I could feel it when I walked in." The building was indeed buzzing, and - if you'll allow two Crazy Reading Ladies a weak sports analogy - Jordan Sonnenblick saw the pitch we lobbed him and hit it clear out of the park. Every single one of our kids was spellbound. Jordan Sonnenblick was superlative. The day was simply exhilarating. It was more wonderful than we could handle. It was a celebration of good books, and another reminder for our kids of what happens when you make the decision to read.

What if they don't read? Ha!
One of the first things we discussed with our principal when we began planning this visit was that reading one of the author's titles would not be required. We would not tell our students they had to read. Admittedly, this decision - while right in so many ways - made us more than a little uncomfortable. Wouldn't they get more out of the experience if they read? What if they didn't read? What if - after everything - we lured Jordan here and then he began his presentation staring at 466 blank faces?

But so much of what we do rests on the relationships we have built with our students. They trust us to put good books in their hands. They know we will be honest and tell them about books we loved. In reciprocity, we offer them choice. At countless conferences we have stood in front of teachers and administrators, spoken about our school-wide reading initiative and declared, "It's voluntary and it works!" How was this any different?

So we held our breath and let go of the control. We put the decision to read in the hands of our students. But here's the thing: when you pick an author like Jordan Sonnenblick, kids will read. Oh yes, they will read. They will read like the wind. All we had to do was introduce them.

Book discussion group
We dare you to read aloud the first five chapters of Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie to a roomful of seventh graders and NOT have a child promise you his college fund in exchange for your copy of the book.

Jordan Sonnenblick is the quintessential YA author. His books are about real kids who face unexpected challenges. They are honest and laugh-out-loud funny. They are emotional. They are engaging. They are short. Sonnenblick captures the voice of the sarcastic, impulsive, ego-centric adolescent the way only a former middle-school teacher could. He writes so well, in fact, that one Crazy Reading Lady took a break from one of his novels declaring, "I can't deal with this kid right now. I have to put up with obnoxious teenage boys all day long. I'm not spending my free time listening to this one." He's that good.
Are those 8th graders smiling? Nah.

Fun fact: that same book, Notes from the Midnight Driver, was the far-and-away favorite of our 8th grade students. Go figure.

In our effort to turn this author visit into a full-on Sonnenblick-a-thon, we hosted read alouds, Stop Drop and Read Days, and two book fairs. We ran teaser videos on the news. We peppered the hallways and cafeteria tables with a rotation of posters bearing book covers, quotes, summaries, and reviews. It has been rumored the Crazy Reading Ladies used up a year's worth of poster printer ink in preparation for this event, but c'mon. You can't believe everything you hear in middle school.
"The Thunderclap" interview team
The end result? Aside from one of us being put on printer probation until further notice, every single child was exposed to several chapters' worth of Sonnenblick. Most of our students read at least one book. Many of them read more. Some read seven.

Three weeks removed from Sonnenblick-a-palooza, we have yet to find the right words to capture what happened on April 12th. The presentation he gave - just a man and a microphone - was one of the finest our faculty had ever witnessed. They are still talking about it. Thank you, Mr. Sonnenblick, for the wisdom and life lessons you so skillfully swathed in humor and shared with our students. Only a former middle school teacher could command an auditorium like that.
We are writers

And maybe, because of his years spent in the classroom, he can read our hearts when our words fall short. Perhaps he knows the value of validation he bestowed upon our group of writers. As part of his day at our school, he met with a selection of students - nominated by their teachers - and taught an hour-long master class. To watch those kids learn about narrative writing techniques and begin to craft an original piece right before our eyes was most impressive. We held back tears as four students read their work aloud, feet away from a best-selling author.
Moments like this

Part of our appreciation for the magic of that day comes from acknowledging the power such an experience can have on a child. As I relayed the day's events to my mom over the phone later that night, emotion took hold and I heard my voice break. I don't believe I ever had an author visit my middle school and I started to cry when I told her how much a day like that would have meant to twelve-year-old me. The fact that the two of us were able to gift our own students with an experience we didn't have was overwhelming.

Jordan Sonnenblick and two CRLs
Success takes on many facades in middle school. It isn't necessarily seen on the faces of 400 belly-laughing adolescents, but on the face of one 8th grade boy who has put his hand to his mouth to mask the smile he can't stop. It isn't exemplified in the line of one hundred students nervously smiling and clutching books to be signed, but in the action of one, who - still occupied by a science quiz - asked a buddy to bring his book to the author to be sure he didn't miss the opportunity. It was seen when two "reading disabled" students took their seats in the twenty-five-member discussion group with the author himself; an assembly comprised of super-fans, ones who read until there was nothing left to read, and one simple fact remained: those two earned it the same way everyone else did. They were there because they read seven books.

Little Crazy Reading Ladies
That morning, our principal stood watch over the book signing table. After about ten minutes, she waved me over. "Watch them," she said, smiling. "Nobody walks out alone. They all wait for someone so they can share the experience." For most of our students, this was the very first opportunity they had to meet an author. We watched them hold their books in line. We heard them giggle and whisper, "Oh my gosh!" as they progress forward, one step at a time. We watched until they were face-to-face with the man they came to see. And then we heard them carefully utter the words, "Hello Mr. Sonnenblick. I loved your book."

In Mary's office is a wall of photos, taken of starstruck CRLs with authors we love. Let us tell you, that nervous stomach and momentary loss of intelligent speech you experienced? That's normal. Those never go away. It is our hope that this experience will be the first of many in their lifetime. May our students grow to be readers who seek out good stories and friends to share them with. May their lives be filled with books and butterflies.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

CRL 2.0

Hi!  Mary here.  Erin mentioned the other day that we don't have anything on our blog that references my move to administration. we do!  (That's kinda how the CRL work.  She tells me what to do and I drop everything and slave away until it meets her approval.)  (Just kidding.)  Enjoy!


I used to hate lunch duty.
When I was teaching, I would have one 20 minute lunch duty every six school days, and I detested it.  Lunch duty is loud, smelly, uncomfortable, and loud.   Once, I made a deal with a colleague; he covered one of my lunch duties in exchange for me grading 25 of his 8th grade Social Studies essays.  (Only 25? A bargain.) 
Now I serve three lunch duties a day.  Three 20 minute lunch periods coupled with transition time means I currently spend an hour and a half of every day surrounded by noise, cafeteria smells, the heat of 180 bodies packed into an enclosed space, and noise.  What’s more, in comparison to some of the other things I deal with in the course of a day, lunch duty is a breeze.  I actually look forward to it. 
And that, in a nutshell, is how I describe the transition from teacher to administrator.  
After thirteen years in a middle school ELA classroom, I became an administrator in January of 2016.   I took the job with all kinds of wide eyed enthusiasm about the impact I’d be able to have.  As a teacher, I said in my interview, I could only reach 80-100 kids each year.  As an administrator, I’d have access to almost 500!  Think of how I could shape them, mold them, positively influence them to become the change makers the world needs so desperately.  I would use my role to connect with students in new and meaningful ways, leading them in literacy initiatives and community service endeavors and mentoring them into compassionate contributors to the local and global community.  

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I see now that I was full of shit.  

You know what I do as an administrator?  I go to lunch duty three times a day.  I try to fit in classroom visits as often as I can, but it’s not nearly often enough.  I call angry parents.  I talk to
angry teachers.  I organize MCAS.  And I investigate incidents.  A lot. 

I’ve said many times, and I’m sure people have assumed I was joking, (I’m not) that instead of curriculum design and budgeting, my graduate classes should have taught me how to conduct an investigation.  And I don’t mean an educational law class, I mean literally HOW to interrogate someone.  What to say, the appropriate tone of voice, what to ask, what to repeat, what to write down, who to question, when to call parents, when to call Central Office, when to call the police.  Watching reruns of Law and Order may be more educational for prospective administrators than pretty much anything I took whilst pursuing my license.

In an ideal world, administrators truly could shape the lives of every student in their building.  In an ideal world, there are no bullying investigations, no complains about the parking lot, no special schedules to be created, no data management systems to navigate.  The administrative job of my interviewing dreams did not include learning how to save security camera footage or repeating truly vile language to appalled parents.  In an ideal world, kids are nice to each other, each child comes from a supportive and capable household, there is peace and harmony in the world, and we all live happily ever after.  

Before I go too far down the path of negativity (too late?) there are parts of my administrative job that I very much enjoy. For example, our evaluation process of observation and conversation, reviewing evidence towards standards and providing feedback, is awesome.  I love visiting classrooms and seeing lessons.  It's such a treat to get out of the four walls of one classroom and into cool places like Science and Math and Spanish and Art.  If not for administration, I'd have zero idea what, let alone appreciation and admiration for, what goes on in a STEM classroom.  I love seeing where subjects connect and support each other.  In team meetings teachers would always talk about how some kids shine in other areas.  As an administrator, now I get to *see* it.  As an administrator, I get to see everything and talk to teachers about it and provide feedback that I hope will help them evolve as a practitioner.  I love it.  Evaluating and helping teachers improve their practice is almost like teaching. 

Interacting with kids
via bulletin board.
Ah, there’s the rub.  I think the hardest part about moving from a classroom to an office is that I desperately miss teaching.  I miss feeling excited about kids and content and projects.  I miss getting them to laugh and watching them grow and improve.  I miss planning lessons in my brain every time
I hear a cool song.  I miss reveling the language of a good poem.  I miss Shakespeare and Frost and Angelou.  I miss Scout and Jem, Liesel and Rudy.  I miss seeing kids get wrapped up in the beauty of a literary moment.  I miss crying with them when a good book ends.  I even miss being huddled on the floor in the corner of a classroom, quietly reassuring kids that they’re going to be okay and that I’ll do anything to keep them safe.  I never thought I’d miss that, but I do.  I miss teaching and everything that goes with it. 

So I teach when I can.  When students are suspended, they spend the day in my office where I willingly teach everything from 6th grade Math to 8th grade Spanish.  When I have to provide feedback and redirection in the cafeteria, I sit next to children and I teach.  When a student is in danger of failing and all other efforts have fallen flat, I take them into my office and I teach.   I’ve embraced the discipline process as a platform for education.   I’ve developed lesson plans for bullying, hate symbols, racial language, and vaping.  I teach in the one-on-one conversations I have with students when conducting an investigation.  I teach when students come to report a problem or
seek guidance.  Whenever and wherever I can, I teach.  

As a literary leader, Erin thinks my new position has brought benefits.  She calls me CRL 2.0. And I suppose I have been able to provide a new perspective and understanding of logistics and impact when we’re planning whole school events.  Sure, I’ve installed a new “Principal’s Bookshelf” in the lobby, and I was able to get new copies of The Giver ordered pretty darn quickly for our 7th graders, and I guess I’ll have to content myself with that for now.  

To answer those people who ask, “do you like it?” I say the jury is still out.  I’m a stronger, more resilient version of myself now than I was two years ago.   That’s good, right?  

To answer the those people who ask, “should I get my admin license?” I have to do you feel about lunch duty?