Monday, August 14, 2017

Shiny Things

Summer is winding down.  I'm busy running errands, finishing tutoring, and preparing for my last vacation before school. I will leave for Philly the following evening to see family, friends, and my Phillies.

I run to the store to pick up something for school.  My trip in and out goes seamlessly.  As I open my back door to put my school supplies in my back seat I pause.  There's something shiny where it shouldn't be in my driver side rear tire.

My mind starts racing back to last August.  In a short period of time, my car broke down four times, and the repairs totaled $1000.  It took four times and two different repair shops to figure out what was really wrong with my car and get it running consistently again.  With each breakdown I experienced stress.  If my friends and family hadn't been there for me to help with rides, I don't know what I would have done.  I can walk to school if I have to, but I'm not an early bird so adding in the extra time to get there can be stressful.

I pause, take a deep breath, and take a closer look at my tire. "Ellen, don't freak out," I think to myself.

The shiny thing in my tread appears to be a safety pin.

"Great! I can't ever seem to find safety pins at home or at school, but when I don't need one this happens," I grumble to myself.

I'm supposed to go out with a couple friends for lunch so I head back to school to let them know I need to take my car to the shop.  My friends manage to talk some sense into me.  We don't hear any air and decide it can wait till after lunch.  They are both willing to take me anywhere I need to go.

We had an awesome lunch.  I take my car to the shop afterwards and another friend and her daughter meet me at the shop to help me in my classroom for a couple hours.

Now I imagine at this point you're wondering, what happened with the tire...

The pin had not even penetrated the tread.  My mechanic checked it out to make sure it was OK, and it didn't even need a patch.  No charge.

This simple car repair or no repair incident got me thinking.  What if I hadn't spotted the pin?  What if I had continued to drive it and damaged my tire?  What if the tire had stopped working when I was on the highway?

Then I started thinking about my first graders.  As another school year approaches, I am wondering about my new students and what they will need.  This tire pin reminds me that I need to be alert, and looking for those shiny things, those red flags, those indicators that my students need me to change direction.

Teaching is all learning.  I didn't understand that when I started, but thanks to my PLN, I am actively learning every day.

I'm very determined to become better at meeting my students' individual needs with every school year.  It's imperative to me that my first graders explore their passions and use their gifts in the context of our school day.

I want to make sure I don't miss the pins in their tires.  I want to recognize when they need a checkup or when they need someone else to take a look at their progress.

I realize I'm only one person, and I might not spot every pin.  But I know there will be fewer flat tires to fix if I make a concerted effort to keep my eyes open.

Since I started blogging, I realize I see the world differently now.  I know some of you may be chuckling that I got all of this from a pin in my tire.

I'm super grateful to those of you who got me started on this journey.  Those of you pushed me to start writing.  Those of you who reassured me that I had nothing to fear and everything to gain.  I've grown so much because of your support and encouragement.

I can't wait to see where the path takes my first graders and me this school year.

As always, thanks for reading.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thank You, Mo Willems!

We all talk about reading.  We all talk about teaching reading.  We all talk about improving our reading instruction.

What I have known for a while but not said out loud is that the best way to improve my reading instruction does not involve curriculum objectives, basals, or technology tools. The best way to improve my reading instruction involves finding more time for my students to read on their own.

I had an experience last week that showed me how wonderful individualizing reading can be.  This experience showed me that I need to create more opportunities in class for my students to love reading.  These opportunities would have to be individualized to be the most effective.  I need to pump up my independent reading time to a whole new level.

One of my students from last year read to me via FaceTime last week.  She is currently visiting her grandparents, and I had suggested the idea because I thought it would be fun for her.  What I didn't anticipate is how much she would teach me in that hour.

I watched her read with gusto Pigs Make Me Sneeze!, I Really Like Slop!, and I'm a Frog! by Mo Willems. The time flew by as she showed me funny details in the illustrations.  I was surprised at how easy it was for me to help her when she got stuck on a word.  (Thanks FaceTime for making that possible:)  She showed me her office that she had created which included a picture of her family and plenty of sharpened pencils.  We had a wonderful visit while she shared her love for Elephant and Piggie with me. She introduced me to her grandparents' cat, gave me a tour of their home, and showed me her two pet tadpoles who were 2 days old.  Caring for tadpoles and reading I'm a Frog! about perfect ways to personally connect with text:)

I need to figure out how to take the magic of what she and I experienced and infuse it into my whole school year.  We weren't reading because we had to.  We were reading because we loved reading.  I didn't have to assess her.  My only goal was to encourage her.  Her only goal was to have fun reading with me.  No workbook, app, or sight word game could have created such a magical learning moment.

I'm publicly promising that I am going to make it my mission to create these kinds of moments in class for all of my first graders in her honor.  I was blessed to be her teacher, and I'm grateful to have had this unforgettable learning experience with her as well.

I can't wait to see what this school year brings.  I can't wait to see what she'll be reading next summer.

Thank You, Mo Willems!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

What Love Looks Like

When I was a little girl I saw love as finding my Prince Charming.  I knew my parents loved me and my extended family loved me.  I learned from my parents that God loved me. But it wasn't until I lost both of my parents that I began to understand what God's love felt like.

Two summers ago I was at a Phillies game (shocking I know:) and had the opportunity to talk with one of my favorite former Phillies, Justin DeFratus, about C.S. Lewis.  I was nursing a broken heart that day because of a failed attempt to find closure with a former boyfriend.  Justin didn't know this when we talked. Justin asked me if I had ever read C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves.  I told him I hadn't, but that I would soon because I would have time to read it over summer vacation.  After talking with Justin, I decided to buy that book for my Kindle, and I started reading it immediately.  I will forever be grateful for that conversation because that book improved my mindset on what love looks like.  It has allowed me to leave my desire for a family of my own in God's Hands, and to thank God for all He has given me.

One of the ways I experience unconditional love daily is from my cats.  For most of my adult life I have had 1-3 cats as pets. I recently joked with one of my best friends that I'm determined to redefine the stereotype regarding single women and cats.  I told her I was going to make it a cool thing to be a cat lady.  I was going to make it so cool Beyonce would want to sing about me.  Just picture Beyonce singing "All the Single Cat Ladies:)"

My cats are my family.  When my Mom had to sell our family home after my Dad passed, our family cats Rusty and Midnight came to live with my cat Sarah and me.  Sarah was a huge help to me when my Mom passed away unexpectedly.  My cat Annie was the first positive step I took to move forward after losing my Mom.  My cat Cassie, who came to live with me most recently, sees no limits to how high she can leap.  Every day I am surprised by where she sits and how much she loves doing laps around my apartment.  Cassie has no reservations and no doubts. She's so confident she tried to sit on my top of my drying rack once. When she fell to the floor because it couldn't hold her, I think I was more startled than she was. Cassie just went back to exploring.  My cats have loved me through joys and triumphs and provided this teacher with more comic relief than I could possibly describe in one blog post.

Yesterday I had the impossible task of saying goodbye to my Annie.  My heart was breaking as it rained outside.  Annie had lived with me for 13 years. The cat who had come to represent sunshine to me was in serious pain.  What I recently thought was a food allergy had turned out to be cancer.  I had a very short amount of time to realize Annie had been suffering far too long, and I had to let her go.  I said goodbye to my sweet Annabella at home.   I was surrounded by the love of three close friends, and feeling the prayers of countless others.  A very kind and patient doctor helped me with this impossible choice.  It was an incredibly difficult and dark day.

 Afterwards, one of my friends drove me to the store so I could get some dinner.  She had invited me to have dinner with her family, but I knew it was important for me to face my grief, and to love on Cassie.  I knew I needed to take that first step forward so I would be able to teach today.  I watched some TV and was frustrated because my Phillies were in Chicago waiting out a rain delay.  If ever I had needed the distraction of baseball it was last evening.  Friends were texting me to make sure I was doing ok.  I was grateful for so much love, but the ache I felt was indescribable.

The game finally started around 9:30pm.  What I watched unfold seemed surreal.  The Dodgers had swept my Phillies over the weekend, and yet my Phillies had a sizable lead over the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.  As the game went on, I started to feel some peace.

My Phillies won last night 10-2. I know they had no knowledge of what I was going through, but it felt like their efforts were for me.  I started to believe that each day I would feel a little more peace.  I started to believe that the sun was going to shine again.

When I got to school this morning, my kids started showering me with love and concern.  One of my girls from last year had brought me a Charlie Brown and Snoopy statue.  Another student from two years ago dropped a sweet note on my desk.  One of my girls brought me a sunshine filled card, and one of my boys wrote a little story about how "Annie was with God's love." My friends and colleagues gave me hugs and encouragement as the day progressed.  I had lunch with two of my boys.  A friend and parent from last year dropped me a note and gift card for dinner saying how sorry she was to hear of my loss.  Everywhere I turned, people were lifting me up.  Everywhere I went today I felt sunshine.  This is a time in the school year when I usually wonder if my students are listening to me.  Today I saw that my students were listening with their whole hearts. Today I felt a little more peace.  I was reminded again that my calling is bigger than me.  I was given the gift of unconditional love from my first graders both present and past.

I am grateful for 13 years with my Annie.  I am grateful for her company, her love, and the joy she brought to my life.  I know when the time is right, I will bring home a new friend for Cassie.  In the meantime I am grateful that I have another animal to love after a long day in the classroom.  I am grateful for my current understanding of what love looks Cassie.

As always, thanks so much for reading.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Why Baseball, Ellen?

It all started with my Dad.  It was April, and the Phillies were playing my Dad's beloved Cubs.  As we watched the game on our 13 inch black and white TV, my Dad said, "Ellen, who do you think is going to win?"  It was early in the game, and the Phillies were behind 13 to 2.  Greg Luzinski was at the plate.  I replied, "Dad, I think the Phillies are."  And win they did.  They came from behind and beat the Cubs 18-16 in extra innings.  That was the day I became a Phillie Phan. Though my Mom never caught the baseball bug like the rest of us, I know it gave her joy to see me rooting for her hometown team.

Baseball has remained a cherished past-time throughout my life. When I am at a game, I remember how much my brother and I loved watching games with my Dad. Baseball is a great way to celebrate my Dad's memory.  Baseball is an interest that my brother and I still share.  We've been able to share our love of baseball with his children, my niece and nephews. Baseball has connected me with new friends. Baseball has opened the door for me to have good conversations with teachers on Twitter about education.  Baseball is a way for me to relax during the two most challenging times of the school year: the beginning and the end.  Baseball is also a way for me to connect with my students. Baseball gives me great analogies for teaching my students about teamwork and character. I'm inspired by the stories of baseball players.  I love watching them pursue their dreams as they make their way from minor to major league teams.  I love when players are good examples for my students.

What lessons from baseball have made me a better teacher, lifelong learner, and person?  I get to explore the answers to those questions this week.  Two of my favorite passions: baseball and education are on deck for this week's #whatisschool.  Please join +Mark Weston @ShiftParadigm and me at the "ballpark" on Thursday, April 13, at 7pm EDT to cheer for the home team.

P.S. As I was writing this the Phillies scored 12 runs in the first inning:) Today might just turn out to be another monumental day for this Phillie Phan:)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Are We Making a Difference?

People often ask me why I choose to teach in a Catholic school when I'm a Protestant.  My response is always the same.  When I realized God was calling me to teach, I knew one thing for certain.  I needed to be able to verbally acknowledge where my calling came from on a daily basis.  This past week I was reminded of how important my calling is to me.  

I'm certain that I'm not the only teacher who has pondered these questions. 

"Am I making a difference?  Am I teaching my students to make a difference? Am I following God's direction when I teach?" 

This past week the fruits of one teacher's answers to these questions resulted in an entire  school making a stand for those in need.  St. Matthew Catholic School's first ever Poverty Action Day was Friday, March 31, 2017.  This day would not have happened if a teacher had not had the courage to share her idea with others.

The idea for this initiative started when one of our former fourth grade teachers, Patricia Wendover, finished the Just Faith course at St. Matthew Catholic Church.  She said that course made her want to put her faith into action.  She wanted to come up with an idea that would encourage students to actively work towards helping those in need.  She wanted to come up with a way that our students could act as the hands and feet of Jesus.  Patricia's idea blossomed into a MACS Education grant that she wrote with two of our kindergarten teachers, Pat Frantz and Mary Strauss.  Betsy DesNoyer joined the team to help when Patricia left to teach at St. Patrick Catholic School and spend more time doing volunteer work.  When the MACS Education Foundation awarded them the funds for their Social Justice Grant, the seeds for Poverty Action Day were planted.

All St. Matthew classroom teachers received books to share with their classes to teach about Catholic social teachings.  Our school's value recognition program was revised to emphasize these Catholic social teachings, and each month two students who modeled the social teaching of the month were recognized in Mass.  Poverty Action Day was the culmination of our school year's efforts to make our students more aware of the importance of recognizing Jesus in every person.

This past week started with a visit from Bishop Peter Jugis on Monday, March 27, 2017.  Our students gathered to hear an inspiring message from Bishop Jugis about the importance of Catholic social teaching.  Student Council escorted Bishop Jugis around our school so he could meet with students and hear what they have been doing to help others in need.  He had a firsthand glimpse of each grade's individual contribution to our school wide efforts.  Our TK, Kindergarten, and first grade students gathered food, diapers, wipes, and coins to help the Missionaries of the Poor.  Our second grade students held a reverse snack sale, where all of our students could purchase a snack for  the children at A Child's Place.  Our third grade students created a Hall of Heroes focused on people who had dedicated their lives to helping the poor.  Our fourth grade students wrote to officials asking them to help the poor and also made blessing boxes for the homeless.  Our fifth grade students created a state of poverty, and listened to a speaker from the Campaign for Human Development.  They also watched a video detailing the efforts of three men who decided to live in poverty to raise awareness of the need for us to help others.

On Poverty Action Day all students had the opportunity to hear a guest speaker talk about the importance of helping the poor and sharing their blessings from God.  Each grade toured the school to see what other students were doing to help people in need.  Students had a simple  snack of saltines and water.  Poverty Action Day culminated with a prayer service led by retired Bishop William Curlin.  Bishop Curlin inspired all those present with his personal experiences helping the poorest of the poor.  He shared stories of when he had visited Mother Teresa in India.  He said he remembered Mother Teresa saying to him that the best gift we can give others is to share the love of Jesus.  He reminded all of us to ask Jesus to live in us each day.

As I talked with the teachers involved over the course of this week I thought it neat that they all said it was someone else's idea.  As I spoke with each of them I was reminded of another quote I had read of Mother Teresa's.

Their humility inspires me.  None of this would have happened if one teacher hadn't shared her idea with a few other teachers.  What ideas have you been pondering as of late? 
As I reflect on this past week, I'm encouraged that our students will be inspired to continue to share with others.  I saw firsthand how the message of this past week was changing their actions towards each other for the better as well.  As I prepared to leave school on Friday, I was presented with a bag of sea shells from one of my students, and a crocheted bracelet from a student in after school.  
The question I'm pondering now is "Whose lives will be changed for good because of their generosity?"  I cannot wait to see these seeds of love blossom.  I cannot wait to see what stories their pencils will tell.
May we all follow in their footsteps.

As always, thanks for reading,


Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Old Friend...

Tomorrow I have to say goodbye to an old friend.

This friend has helped me to stretch.  This friend has connected me with opportunities to serve the needs of others.  This friend has made me laugh. This friend has brought me joy and introduced me to more new friends than I could have ever made on my own.  This friend has made me a better teacher. This friend has made me a stronger person.  This friend has inspired me to keep going on days when I felt stuck.  This friend has changed my thinking.  This friend has taught me to question and to grow even when I'm uncomfortable doing so.

This friend has shown me the limitless possibilities that await my students, my fellow educators, and me.  This friend has expanded my story more than I ever could have imagined. 

At this point you're probably thinking, "Just introduce us already, Ellen."

No, it's not a Peanuts character...

Yes, my PLN friends, I am talking about my school iPad2.  

This tool has connected me with more opportunities to grow than I could possibly list let alone describe in detail in one blog post.  When I reflect on those of you who I have had the privilege to meet in person, consider this post a long distance bear hug.  Those of you I have yet to meet, consider this post a long distance bear hug as well.  

Because of you, my students have seen more of the world and met students, teachers, authors, and experts they never would have otherwise.  Because of you future possibilities are bigger than this teacher ever imagined before.

I can't help wondering how my old friend will change the lives of the students it goes to next.  How will my old friend expand their stories?  How will my old friend help them to grow, explore, leap, and dream?  

In the event you've been wondering about my students and their efforts to help the Kula Project, let me give you a quick update.  My first graders are in the process of writing letters to their new friends in Rwanda. Each week when I least expect it, my students hand me dollars from their piggy banks, coins from their lunch money, and portions of their allowances.  They are honoring each other's random acts of kindness by giving to their new friends across the ocean. In the midst of their struggle with Spring Fever (or what I like to call my March Madness), they are still remembering to help. They humble me daily.  Their generosity inspires me to give more.

For me, technology's greatest asset is its ability to connect me with innovative educators around the world. Who brings light to your life through the window of technology?  

As always, thanks so much for reading.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Why I Tweet...

I've been thinking a great deal about my story lately.  Who has impacted my life?  Who has encouraged me to keep dreaming and growing?  Who has seen me through my toughest losses?  Who continues to push me to be the best version of me?  One person that has been in every chapter of my life is my friend Lori.

Lori and I met when I was 5, and she was 4.  We lived in the same neighborhood of townhouses.  We attended the same ballet class, and we were in Brownies together.  We spent our days creating stories with our dolls, and playing baseball with our brothers.  We explored the woods that were close to our neighborhood, and we put on shows for our friends.  Our childhood was full of adventures.  

When Lori's family moved away, we wrote letters to each other.  We visited each other when possible through high school.  We continued to correspond through college and graduate school.  We shared stories of our adventures.  I was unable to attend Lori's wedding so I first met her husband and daughters through her letters. Distance didn't prevent us from listening to each other.  I looked forward to Lori's Christmas card every year.  Even though we weren't able to visit in person, we continued to encourage and support each other.  We continued to play a part in each other's lives.

In April 2007, Lori and I had the opportunity to reconnect.  Our reunion was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.  Neither one of us could believe that twenty years had passed since we had seen each other.   Because of our correspondence, it felt like we had only been apart for a few months.  Lori's friendship has taught me again and again the importance of written communication.  Lori was one of the first people to show me how words connect us.  Our stories are not limited by time and distance.  Lori taught me how important it is to speak from and to listen with my whole heart.

I found myself thinking a lot about my friendship with Lori while I was at NCTIES last week.  The connections I have made with other educators through tweeting have created endless possibilities for my teaching.  Tweeting has become my current method of letter writing.  Attending NCTIES would give me the chance to see some of those educators in person.  

For two days I had the privilege of learning from other North Carolina educators.  As I trekked through the Raleigh Convention Center attending sessions, connecting with teachers, and looking for the best places to get a snack, I had lots of time to reflect.  I had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories from other teachers.  I realized that technology has expanded our ability to positively impact each other.  Technology has expanded the realm of possibility for our students.  I thought of the many educators who I have never met in person whose support I feel daily.  The more educators I have the courage to share my story with the more I grow.  The more we all share our stories, the more we discover points and experiences that connect us.  We find that our struggles and dreams are similar.  We are reminded that we are not alone in our efforts to make education better for all students. 

One of the sessions I attended was Go Global! Amy Judd and Cheryl McCrorey presented strategies for connecting students globally.  While I was in this session I was surprised to find the class we were Mystery Skyping with was taught by Elisa Waingort.  I had communicated with Elisa on numerous occasions through Twitter.  Seeing her students enjoying the Mystery Number Skype was a highlight of the conference for me.  It reiterated for me the value and importance of connecting for my students.

Another highlight of the conference for me was having dinner with Elizabeth Chapman.  Elizabeth and I first connected through Twitter, but we met in person for the first time at NCTIES Elizabeth and I teach in the same state, but we probably never would have crossed paths if it weren't for the power of our Professional Learning Network.  Meeting Elizabeth was like reconnecting with an old friend.  Having the opportunity to hear more of her story of how she became an educator was a privilege.  

Before our dinner, Elizabeth and I met keynote speaker George Couros.  I was not surprised to discover how funny and approachable he is in person.  His genuine commitment to empowering  educators resonated with me. The other teachers from my school discovered the same thing when they ran into him later that evening.  Thanks to George, I think they have a better picture of why Twitter is so important to me.  His message showed them firsthand how being a connected educator can greatly improve your teaching.  I bought his book The Innovator's Mindset on the way to dinner.  George Couros made the point several times during his conference presentations that sometimes you just need to watch a cat video.  Making time to rest and to laugh makes you more productive.  Truth be told, I haven't made time to rest lately.  I needed a new voice to remind me again of the importance of balance in my life.  I needed to hear his message of encouragement.  The connections we make with other educators are more valuable than any other resource.

I think it was during his keynote that George Couros mentioned that because of technology, we are always able to find other educators to help us grow and improve our teaching.  We are no longer isolated unless we chose to be.  This point really resonated with me.  Because of my PLN, my possibilities for growth are infinite.

The session that stuck with me the most was presented by another friend from Twitter.  I first met Mandy Casto through a morning educator spark chat called #bfc530.  Mandy and her colleague Kim Harris presented Teaching Outside the Digital Toolbox.  I'm excited to explore the tools they presented and see which ones will work best for my students.

NCTIES also presented me with the opportunity to learn with other teachers from my school and another school in our diocese.  Their excitement, enthusiasm, and humor made learning more fun. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with my friend Patty Fischer who is just about to finish her first year as an assistant principal.  Talking with her about goals for my students and for my future was thought provoking and encouraging.  I told her it was like coming home.  We don't work in the same school anymore, but we are still cheering each other on in our educational journeys.

What was the most important thing I learned while at NCTIES?  Just like Lori, my educator friends are now treasured sources of support and guidance for me.  I need to make time for connecting with them, and I can't forget the importance of balance in my life.  I can't imagine my life without Lori, and I can't imagine my life without my PLN.  

As I was processing all that I learned and experienced last week, I received an unexpected text from Lori.  She had a last minute opportunity to go on a research trip to Egypt.  When I woke up that morning, I never expected to see a photo of my friend in front of Egyptian pyramids.  Talk about adventures!  What adventure is next for me?  Time to explore the possibilities...