Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Slice of Life: SNOW 12/10

The ladies at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

On Sunday, we were supposed to get snow but it was supposed to come in the afternoon.  My husband and I drove about 25 minutes away for brunch and were surprised but not too worried when the snow came early.  But then it just kept falling.  It was that beautiful kind of snow that makes you feel like you are in a snow globe as you look out the window.  The setting at our friends' house was gorgeous. A snow-covered forest of old trees.

Then, it was time to drive home. I got to do the driving since I am a better winter driver.  My husband does a great job, but he didn't grow up around here and does not have as much experience in the snow.  The interstate was still snow-covered and everyone was sensibly driving at about 35 mph tops. It was treacherous and scary and I was so happy when I arrived at home.  I was especially thankful that we got home safe when I turned on the television and saw on the news updates that almost every other spot in the city there had been a multiple car pile-up on the freeways.  We're talking 20-30 cars in these crashes.  As I had mentioned to my husband as I drove us home, it was a blessing that everyone was driving sensibly and no one was trying to speed around everybody.

This is one of the multiple car crashes that happened.

When I got home, I started thinking about some of the conversation we had at the brunch table.  The people we were with were talking cars a lot of the time, which is something I know almost nothing about.  However, when talked turned to the crappy handling of some higher end cars in the snow, it was something that I could relate to.  You see, when I was in high school, I drove a Mercedes.

My father always wanted to have a Mercedes. We made fun of him and got him models of Mercedes. It was one of those things that he had always wanted for his whole life.  So, when the opportunity presented itself for him to lease one at a reasonable price, he went for it.  My mother was a teacher and he was a salesman, so they made decent money, but were not rich.  My father had his dream car for the last 6 months of his life.  When he passed away, my mother had the difficult decision of which car to get rid of.  She decided to keep the Mercedes because it made the most sense. It turns out that this car was something of a lemon.  So when I started driving, it became the car that I could drive.

The car I drove was a sedan similar to this one. 

That car was horrible in the winter.  It had rear-wheel drive and fishtailed around every corner in the snow.  I got really good at driving in the snow.  Even though it was probably not the best idea for me to drive a car like that as a teenager, the experience taught me a lot about winter driving.  Now, I am a natural at handling tough driving.  My reactions when driving in snow are natural.  The car fishtails? No problem.  Having a hard time getting through that snow pile? No problem.  I have confidence and know what I am doing because of the crappy way that car handled snow and ice.

When I encounter the tricky winter driving situations like I had on Sunday, I am so thankful for the confidence that I have.  My reactions are automatic and I don't even have to think about which way to steer or how hard to hit the accelerator.  I wonder if my dad knows about the lessons that his dream car gave me.  I hope so.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Slice of Life: Lessons I have learned from my dog 11/19

The ladies at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

My dog Carmela is super smart.  She has some great lessons to teach us all.  Here are the top ten lessons she has taught me:

1. Sometimes it is time to put aside the work and relax.  My dog will push the computer right out of my lap or try to lie down on top of it--her not-so-subtle reminder that it is time to cuddle and put away the work.

2. If someone you love is upset or crying, you should drop everything to console them. The doggie form of consolation is licking all over your face, but you could probably pick something else like hugs.

3. You should welcome everyone home with exuberance. That way they will know you love them.

4. Credit cards are dangerous. You should not use them.

5. Sometimes you should be wary of strangers.  Follow your instincts.

6. Books are amazing.  You should kiss them every once in a while because they smell so good.

7. There is no such thing as too many belly rubs.  You should ask everyone you come across for a good belly rub.

8. The best way to start the day is with a good walk.

9. Sleeping in is for lazy bums, but naps are perfectly acceptable.

This is one of my favorite pics from when she was a puppy.

10. If you are naughty, just beg for forgiveness. Who could resist that face?

If you are fortunate enough to be blessed with a pet, I am sure you can relate to this post.  I certainly have learned a lot from every pet I have had.  Carmela just has some particularly great lessons for me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Slice of Life: Celebrations 11/12

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Here is something that I am celebrating this week:

Last week, my students begged to be able to write.  This is the second year that I have participated in NaNoWriMo and I absolutely love the experience!  I knew that my students needed time to prewrite and prepare for this month so all through October we worked on developing characters and plot.

NaNoWriMo for adults means trying to write 50,000 words in the month.  For students, the word count goal is a self-selected number.  Using this chart, I set the requirements for my 8th graders.  They are required to set a goal between 3,000 and 10,000 words, if not higher.  We use the Word Count Goal Calculator on the Young Writers Program website to prove to students that they will be able to write that amount of words.  I love the way that some students challenge themselves with a higher word count goal than they are required to have.

Once November starts, I set aside at least 2 class periods a week for novel writing.  By having students work so much on prewriting in October, I was able to build up their anticipation for NaNoWriMo.  On November 1st, students were silent and writing.  And every day since the students have begged for writing time and cheered when I told them it was a noveling day.  I also offered after school sessions for students who might want to come write.  I was blown away that there were 18 students who signed up for these sessions.  So far, we have spent three separate days after school until 5pm.  Driving home from school after these sessions, I feel so amazing.  I love that I have students who are enjoying writing so much.

Last year, NaNoWriMo was the number one thing that my students wrote about on my end of the year survey.  They LOVED the experience.  This year my students are even more enthusiastic about this experience.  I would not have believed that this would be such a popular writing activity if I had not tried it.

Although I love NaNoWriMo as a class activity, I have realized that NaNoWriMo does not work for me.  I have not spent enough time doing the work to plan out my novels.  I have the ideas but when I sit down to write, I just don't have enough.  I am learning that I am the kind of writer that needs to have plans and outlines.  The quick turnaround time of NaNoWriMo does not allow for this outlining and planning.  Even though I am not loving what is coming out, I am working on a draft so that I can celebrate my word count with my students.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Slice of Life: Injections 11/5

I am slowly, but surely learning about living with MS.  My most recent flare-up seems to have subsided for the most part.  I am glad to know that the ridiculous fatigue I sometimes feel has an explanation, and I have been glad to be able to read some blog posts from others who have these same symptoms.

Last week, I read Climbing Higher which is Montel Willams' memoir about dealing with MS.  I was amazed to read about the severe symptoms he experienced, and about how little they knew about the disease just 15 years ago.  It was eye-opening to read that book.  I hope I continue to have relatively mild relapses if I have any at all.

Last Saturday, the nurse came out to my house to train me for doing my daily injections of medication. My husband and I spent about an hour learning the proper technique for doing the injections and the proper ways to dispose of materials.  I now have a little red sharps container of my very own.

The good thing about this medication is that there really are not many side effects.  The most common side effects are injection site reactions.  Therefore, I need to rotate the different injection sites in order to avoid having bigger reactions.  There are seven spots where I do the injections.  So I basically feel like a giant pin cushion.  Each time I do an injection so far, I get a small reaction.  It feels like a bee sting for about 15-20 minutes and I need to put a cold compress on the spot.  It is a small price to pay for possibly not having to deal with bigger neurological symptoms, but it is uncomfortable.  

In the blog post in which I first spoke of my diagnosis, I wrote that my biggest challenge was that of crossing the line from healthy person to person with an auto-immune disease.  I think that this continues to be the biggest adjustment for me.  The daily injections just highlight this difference in my mind.  So I will continue to despise these daily shots at the same time that I love them for what they may do for me. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Slice of Life: Connecting Through Stories 10/15

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Last week in writing class, I modeled writing about an important moment in my life.  I knew it was important to come up with a moment that might resonate with my students so that they would be able to pick a good moment to write about.  We discussed how a snapshot moment in writing shows instead of telling and I shared a few examples of snapshots.  Then, I started sharing about the moment I had chosen to write about.

I chose to tell my students about the moment that my dog got hit by a car when I was in middle school. I told them that I chose this moment because it was so important to me.  It was the really hard lesson I had in which I realized that it was a good idea to listen to my dad.  I watched as my students nodded along as I told them this.

Then I proceeded to tell them the story.  I was out picking up rotten apples from the ground under the apple tree and chose not to put my dog on his chain.  I thought my dog would stay there with us and he didn't.  We realized my dog was not there and then proceeded to call him.  We were on the other side of the house when we heard the screech of brakes.  When we got there, the dog was still alive but barely. We rushed him to the emergency vet, but he had too much internal bleeding for them to do anything. This was absolutely devastating to me at this age, especially because I didn't follow my dad's directions and I felt terribly guilty about the whole thing.

As I told the story, I filled out the graphic organizer the students would be using.  I talked about sensory details and how I was feeling.  I gave them a piece of my history.

Then, when it was time for them to start writing and I was circulating the room, I was bombarded with questions. What kind of dog was it? Did you get another dog? I also heard the stories from my students. It was overwhelming to hear about the way this story connected with my students.  So many of them have experienced something similar with a beloved pet.

After reading their snapshots this weekend, I realized again how important it is to model in a real way for students.  I chose a real moment that was important to me.  We all connected through this experience and then my students found moments that mattered to them.  And the best part is that I found a way to connect in a deeper way to my students and now I will know them in a deeper way through reading their writing.

So much of what we do in the classroom relies on the relationships that we build.  My writing lesson last week reminded me that the best way to build a relationship is through sharing things that matter to us.  By choosing a moment I thought would resonate with my middle school students, I inadvertently chose a moment that we all could share.

I hope to find more of these moments throughout this year in our writing workshop.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Slice of Life: Feeling Loved

In the last few weeks as I have shared my recent medical issues with my friends and family, the outpouring of support I received was amazing.  I have heard from colleagues, friends, and family.  So many people have sent me messages about prayers and thoughts sent my way.

I am overwhelmed by this.  I am so lucky to have so many caring people in my life.  It makes me think about how important it is to be there for others.  In this age of social networking and the negative thoughts that we see so often, it is amazing to be surrounded with positive thoughts.

I just keep thinking about how lucky I am to have wonderful people in my life that will go the extra mile to let me know they are thinking of me. I am truly blessed and I will work to pay it forward so that others that are not so lucky might feel a bit of this feeling.  I feel loved and am so grateful for that.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Slice of Life: My World Turned Upside Down

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Three weeks ago, I came home from school after a long day on my feet, took off my shoes, and put my feet up.  My feet felt weird.  They were feeling kind of swollen but also tingling and like they were asleep.  I figured they were just tired and mad at me...after all it was not too far into the school year and I was not yet used to being on my feet all day.  I went to bed a little concerned but not too worried.

Then I woke up with tingling and numb feet on Tuesday.  I still was trying not to be too concerned, there were a number of things that could explain it.  I had a text conversation with my sister the doctor and decided to just relax and go with the flow.  But she warned me to pay attention if the numbness and tingling started spreading.  Of course, later that afternoon I started to have tingling in my lower legs. Now, I was a bit worried.  I went home and stayed off my feet. If pure willpower had been enough to cure me, I would have been cured.  I did not want to have to go in to the emergency room.  I decided that it wasn't really spreading so I chose not to go that night.  (I was also refusing to be sick because I had organized an author visit at school for the following day)

Wednesday morning I woke up at 3am to the weirdest sensation ever.  My feet felt like they were going to explode out of their skin.  At this point, I was worried.  I requested a substitute and went in to urgent care.  There they ran a bunch of tests, but diagnosed me with neuropathy.  There wasn't anything they could do for it so they sent me home with a new vocabulary word and directions to follow-up with a neurologist.  I went to school at 10am and was able to host the author and it even went better than it would have because my class had the substitute teacher and I could be there just for the visit.  I had a great time meeting Jasper Fforde and seeing students that were really excited to meet a real author (from Wales, no less).

Did I mention that I was walking funny and losing my balance easily?  The three flights of stairs to my classroom seemed extra daunting so I was glad that I wasn't working.  I went home and rested and tried to get a hold of the neurologist for a follow up appointment.  No dice.

The next few days were normal, except for the fact that I couldn't really feel my feet at times, or they were extra tingly and uncomfortable at other times.  Then, on Friday,tingling and numbness started in my groin area.  I talked to my sister the doctor again on Sunday and she insisted that I immediately go to the emergency room.  I guess numbness in that area can sometimes be spinal cord compression and this was something to get figured out.  So, I headed off to the hospital.  They did a whole battery of tests on me.  The doctor in the ER wanted to order a STAT MRI, but didn't think they would let her do that.  This hospital was small and there wasn't a radiologist in on Sunday night so they didn't do the MRI.  She sent me home with a prescription for the STAT MRI and instructions to expect a phone call the next morning to schedule it.

Now I was feeling awful because I was going to miss school for the second day in the first three weeks of the school year.  This was not the way I wanted to start the year.  I stayed home on Monday so that I could schedule the MRI as soon as possible.  I got the appointment for noon on Monday and then played the waiting game.  I got to the hospital, registered, and was brought back to do the MRI right away.  I changed, locked up all my things, and headed off to the MRI machine.  Then, they handed me some earplugs.  I should have expected it but I didn't.  I get super nervous when I can't hear well. Then I was lying on the table and the technician put a cage-like thingy over my head.  I got more nervous. Then, I asked how long this was going to take.  She said about an hour.  That was the last straw.  I couldn't do it.  I did not know I was going to be claustrophobic but this was not happening.  So I had to leave. Because it was an MRI that was ordered by an ER doctor, I didn't have anyone to ask to reorder the MRI with sedation or with anxiety meds.  I went home frustrated and started calling my primary doctor, the emergency department where I had been seen, and the neurologist that I was supposed to follow up with.  Two hours later, when I hadn't gotten anywhere with those doctors, I decided to go back to the ER.  This time, I went to a bigger hospital.

By this time, it was already Monday evening.  I had another long wait in the ER, but because I still had the numbness in the groin, I was a higher priority with the triage and didn't have to wait long to be brought back.  This doctor did not waste time, she reviewed everything that had been done at the other ER and ordered the MRI right away with anxiety meds this time.  She decided to get a scan of my brain as well as the lumbar part of my spine.  When the results were back, the doctor consulted my primary doctor and decided to admit me to the hospital.  They had found lesions in my brain scan and wanted the neurologist to take a look.  Before bringing me up to the room, they decided to do a spinal tap so that the results could be back in the morning.  On Tuesday, the neurologist ordered yet another MRI of the rest of my spine while we were waiting for the spinal tap results.

Tuesday was a long day of waiting.  I did not get on the MRI schedule until the evening so I spent the day watching HGTV and trying to read a little bit.  I think I also slept some as well.  On Tuesday night, the neurologist called to talk to me and let me know the diagnosis.  He had mentioned it in the morning, and I knew that is what they were trying to figure out, but it was difficult to get the diagnosis.  I have Multiple Sclerosis.  I am not crazy.  I am not a hypochondriac.  Those weird symptoms that I always seem to get have a cause to them.  It explains a lot.  But it is not a fun thing to find out about yourself.

Being a nerd, and having a doctor for a sister, I have a lot of research to do.  My sister has already sent me multiple articles to read.  I know what my genius hour project will be about.  I have done some reading but this week was mostly about getting back to normal and catching up at school (I missed the entire week last week).

What has been the most difficult about this time is that the world continues to revolve while my brain stalls a little bit and I just feel like crawling under the covers and hiding from the world for a time.  I know this is not the worst thing that could happen to me by far, but it takes me from the world of healthy people into the world of people with a pre-existing condition.  I have an auto-immune disease. That is hard to fathom.  It is hard to accept.  But I will get there.  I just need a little time.  For now, I hope this flare-up goes away and I can focus on moving forward. One day at a time.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Starting a New Year

Today was my first official day back to school.  I have been working in my classroom for about a week and had learning team meetings last week to write the School Improvement Plan, but now I have to get back to the routine.  The beginning of the school year always makes me think of New Years Day and resolutions.  I think I make more resolutions each time school starts than I do at New Years.  This year, thanks to some great professional reading, my biggest resolution is just to BRING IT in the classroom.

I also am super excited because someone in the district office finally listened to us and the super strict mandates for curriculum and instruction have been lightened this year.  I will be able to teach with Reading and Writing Workshop models and not have to figure out how to connect it to the mandated structure.  I have the most coherent and connected plans for instruction that I have had in the last few years.  Of course, there are still millions of things on my to-do list that need to be done before next Tuesday when students start school.

I am so excited to be setting up our reading community.  Here are a few pictures from the work-in-progress.

The book sorting process. It is much more organized than it has been in the last few years. I love the genre classification stickers from Demco!
I am so excited about this reading door!

My reading door display is much bigger this year.  I had a small display last year and it really started conversations.  This year, I have it up before the staff meeting that will be in my room tomorrow and before Open House.  I can't wait to see what kind of buzz I can create with this display.

For now, I need to take things a step at a time and get ready for the best year ever!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Being a Pirate and Finding Inspiration

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

In the last week, I have read two professional books that gave me endless inspiration for the coming school year.  Both books ignited a fire in me and made me look at some hard truths about myself and my school.  

First, I read Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle. I had read Book Love earlier this year so I knew I would love Penny's writing.  What I got out of the book was exactly what I had hoped to find.  The very clear explanations of how she structures her classroom and what units she chooses to teach gave me some direction that I badly needed.  I have been doing Writer's Workshop for more than ten years now.  I started in first grade and moved to fourth and fifth grade and then up to middle school grades.  I have never felt like I got a handle on middle school writer's workshop.  I know we probably do better than I give myself credit for, but I know I can do much better.  

My first a-ha came in the section of the book where Ms. Kittle describes the idea of choice in workshop.  She tells of an interview that Tom Newkirk did with Don Graves in which Don said, "Unlimited choice is no choice at all."  

She goes on to say:

 "I had missed that part. Choice has to be taught: I needed to learn how to help students discover their topics. Students of any age will get discouraged if they just sit and think, trying to find an idea that feels big enough to write about."  

I love when I read about teachers who have had the same struggles as I have had and have found a solution.  I love the way that Kittle balances quick-writes with mini-lessons and now I have a good plan for the daily routine in my classroom.  

The other quote from this book that really jumped out at me was this one:

"I don't have a lot of patience for teachers who stand behind their twenty-year-old lesson plans with the admonition that, 'I'm giving them good teaching but they don't take advantage of it and learn, that's not my problem.' Teachers have to adjust their work to meet the needs of kids. If the kids aren't learning, the first place to look is at the teacher and the curriculum. All kids can write well; I just don't accept anything else to be true. I will work every day (weekends, too) to make it happen for whoever walks through that door. That's professionalism. That's responsibility. I won't pretend this work is about anything less." 

I really appreciate the candor in this. I agree whole-heartedly and I am glad to see that there are teachers who are willing to take their stand in a published work.  This gives me a swift kick in the pants to consider my own professionalism and what I can do differently to help students become good writers.  I am not saying that I haven't already been doing some of this and thinking this way, just that I have room for improvement and I will make it a priority to improve.  

The second book that I read this week that really hit home is Teach like a PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator by Dave Burgess.  This was a truly motivational and inspirational book.  It just made me really think hard about what I give students in my classroom.  I thought through my passions and really evaluated my own teaching as I read through his ideas.  One thing has been really bugging me for years.  This idea of professional jealousy that exists in our worlds. Maybe you are lucky and work in a place in which everyone is completely supportive of one another...that is very lucky.  In this book, Dave Burgess discusses the awkward moment that happens in his seminars when he asks the question, "Do you want to be great?" He says:

"I'm sure a certain portion of my audiences want to say 'yes' to the greatness question. Unfortunately, the snide comments and eye rolling of their peers keeps them from admitting what they really want. People who are comfortable and accustomed to traveling with the pack, always riding in the peloton, often resent those trying to escape in search of something more...Believe me, plenty of people will try to drag you back. That's why you must have a goal worth fighting for."

This section hit home.  In 2006, I was fortunate enough to be given a Milken Educator Award. Each year, there are two Milken Educators named in Wisconsin (as well as about 100 educators nationwide) and I was lucky enough to be recognized in this way.  The award comes with a $25,000 prize.  The state superintendent and a whole bunch of other dignitaries showed up at my school for an assembly.  Part of the deal with the Milken award is that the assembly is a complete surprise.  We knew we were having a bunch of important people come to our school but not what it was about.  When my name was called after all the build-up and explanation about the award,  I remember two things.  First, I remember the cheers and screams of the kids in the auditorium.  I have a fabulous picture from the local newspaper of two of my students jumping up and down as if they had won the award themselves.  Second, I remember the scowls on the faces of two of my colleagues.  I was at the microphone, completely shocked and awed that I had been recognized in this way and I faltered in what I would say because I saw these two people glaring back at me.  How awful is that?  I got this completely unsolicited recognition and they could not be happy for me.  My pleasure and celebration that day was tainted by the rumors that I knew would be flying all day. 

This section of Think Like a Pirate brought me back to that day.  I was able to shake off the negativity and continue to strive for greatness, but I really shied away from any opportunity to share what I was doing in my classroom because I let that criticism get in.  I will not let the negativity of others keep me back anymore. There are many ideas I really like in this book, but the best thing that I got from the book was a new motivation to continue to seek greatness in my classroom and a great resource of guidance to help me do it.  

It was the perfect blend of professional books for me to read this week.  I love this time of the year when I start to dream about the possibilities for the new school year.  This year I will go into the school with a renewed spirit and commitment to professionalism and greatness.

I hope all the other teachers out there are finding their inspiration to go start a great school year.  How are you finding your inspiration?  Are you going to be like a pirate too?  Please share in the comments.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Slice of Life: Polishing Rocks and Finding a Passion for Learning

     Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Rocks rock!  I remember when I was younger there was a time that I went through a super geology geek phase.  I believe it all started with a field trip to the local geological nirvana.

Cave of the Mounds is a National Natural Landmark and an awesome place to explore as a young nerd.  We spent a lot of time before the trip learning about stalactites (hold on tight to the ceiling) and stalagmites (might reach the top at some point) and other important cave information.  Then, we set off to the caves and took tours and stared in awe at the way nature creates these amazing spaces.

Although I enjoyed the tour and the awesome picnic lunch at Bluemound State Park (complete with the can of soda wrapped in tin foil to keep it cold--a rare treat), my favorite time of the day was the small amount of time we had to explore the gift shop.  This place was FULL of amazing rocks.  They were shiny, polished little pieces of heaven.  I remember buying some Pyrite (Fool's Gold) because I thought it was hilarious that there was a rock that looked so much like gold but had no value.  I also bought an assortment of polished stones.  How could normal, everyday rocks look so beautiful?  How did they do that? Oh, and geodes were so COOL!  

I went home and probably annoyed the heck out of my parents geeking out about rocks and minerals.  I was so excited about how there were such gorgeous rocks out there.  I started watching everywhere I went and picking up rocks that I thought were pretty.  Of course, most rocks were not very different, but I was putting together quite a collection.

Then my parents got me this:

This was one of those presents that you immediately get out of the box to use it.  I think it came with a small bag of rocks to polish.  My parents were excited about the rock tumbler too.  Until we turned it on.  That machine was SOOO LOUD!!!  The rock tumbler was banished to the garage.  No matter, I still could polish the heck out of all the rocks I wanted to shine.  I was over the moon about it.

Once I ran out of my own rocks to polish, my mother took me to visit the coolest store on the planet.  It is a rock store in Madison that still exists today.

This place is the most amazing place.  There are crystals and geodes and agate slices for home decoration.  There are pebbles and stones that have been polished.  There are other rocks waiting to be polished.  And there is apparently a jewelry section.  This makes sense, but I did not notice that as a kid.  I was able to buy rough looking rocks there and take them home to polish in the tumbler.  

The best part of the whole thing was being able to take something that was rough and bring out its potential.  I delighted every time I opened up the tumbler to see a new set of shiny rocks to display.  

As I think back to this phase of my childhood, it is apparent to me how very lucky I was to have teachers who inspired this passion for geology with a field trip and parents who encouraged it.  How much did I learn about rocks and minerals during this time of my life?  Well, being the absolute nerd that I was, I read all about everything that I came across.  I learned about crystal formation and made rock candy, I learned about how different types of rocks form, I learned about fossils, and I learned about caves.  Sure I learned some of it in school, but the depth of my knowledge reached far beyond the scope of what was being taught to my classmates.  This was my very own passion.  The light was lit under me and I was motivated to know everything there was to know about rocks.  

This makes me pause and think about the opportunities I provide my students.  Do they have the opportunity to discover a passion for something and learn about it?  Do my students have families that would support this type of learning? Would they even know how?  

As I think about how to structure my classroom for the fall, I certainly will be thinking about rocks.  How I fell in love with them in elementary school.  How they surprised me with their beauty.  How my passion drove my learning.  If this is not a reason to try to ignite passion and encourage individual inquiry, I don't know what is.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Slice of Life: Living in Wisconsin

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Last Thursday, my husband and I dropped the dog off at a doggy spa and took off to Madison.  My mother and stepfather live in Madison, so we go quite often.  Thursday seemed like the perfect day for a little spontaneity and so I suggested that we take a different route to get to Madison.  We enjoy craft beer and there are a number of small breweries in Wisconsin.  This seemed like a fun time to try one out.  So we took off with the idea of going to visit the New Glarus brewery.

Thursday was a spectacularly sunny day and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous.  Since we were taking a highway that was south of the one we usually take, we were treated to different landscapes.  Wisconsin is beautiful in the summertime and we enjoyed seeing the farm animals.  As we drove, it made me think back to the book I was reading at the time American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.  There is a passage in the beginning of that book that perfectly described how I was feeling at the time:

Then we were back in Wisconsin, a place that in late summer is thrillingly beautiful...to think of Wisconsin specifically or the Midwest as a whole as anything other than beautiful is to ignore the extraordinary power of the land.  The lushness of the grass and trees in August, the roll of the hills (far less of the Midwest is flat than outsiders seem to imagine), that rich smell of soil, the evening sunlight over a field of wheat, or the crickets chirping at dusk on a residential street: All of it, it has always made me feel at peace.  There is room to breathe, there is a realness to the place.  The seasons are extreme, but they pass and return, pass and return, and the world seems far steadier than it does from the vantage of a coastal city...But the Midwest: It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on.  It is the place I am calmest and most myself.

The drive was peaceful and relaxing and I loved seeing the amazing countryside and the farms.  My husband and I rode in companionable silence, listening to the music he enjoys, and commenting once in awhile on something we saw out the window.

Then, after about the third time the GPS told us "drive 15 miles..." to the next turn, I started to feel a shift in mood in the car.  My husband started looking at the clock and muttering and the enjoyment started to falter.  You see, my husband is not cut out for road trips.  For him, the idea of being stuck in a car driving for hours is a form of torture.  My assurances that this trip would not be longer than the trip to Madison had been adamant and now I was being proven wrong.  Whoops!

About thirty minutes after I thought we would arrive, we had reached our destination.  New Glarus brewery makes a number of beers that are distributed around the Midwest, among them is the most popular of their brews, Spotted Cow.

They are also known for making fruit beers, such as Raspberry Tart, which is a lambic-style beer.  The brewery is really pretty and built into a hillside in a very rural part of Wisconsin.  It is south of Madison and has a nice setting.

The place was really beautiful and it was kind of nice to be able to go on a self-guided tour.  They offered 3 beer samples for $3.50 and you then keep the tasting glass.  We enjoyed a cold beer on a super hot day and had a good time stretching our legs and walking through the brewery.  I wish they would have had some small museum-like plaques at certain points along the way to explain what we were seeing.  Having been on multiple tours of breweries, we were pretty knowledgable but it would have been nice to have some unique information from this one.  

After having our samples, we were ready to set out on the road again.  There were a few grumbles from my husband about the fact that it was later than he had anticipated, but nothing too difficult to deal with. After all, I was having a lovely road trip.  

When we got to Madison, we met my mother and stepfather at their condo and then went to have dinner.  After eating, we headed to the Memorial Union terrace.  The terrace is one of the things I miss most now that we don't live in Madison.  Ask any Badger and you will know, this is one special place. There is even a construction sign that agrees with me!

My husband Ramon and my stepfather Jim decided to jump into my photo.  

Putting our heads together to plan.  

After enjoying some beer together on the terrace, it was time to head back.  Before leaving the union, I had to make one last pit stop: the ice cream counter.  If you have never tried Babcock hall ice cream, you are missing out.  The dairy is actually part of the School of Agriculture at UW-Madison, and they make phenomenal stuff!

The best flavor ever! Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream.  It is never the same anywhere else.
On Friday, we got to the real reason we had come to Madison.  Maxwell Street Days on State Street.

This is an annual sidewalk sale event on the best shopping street in Madison.  This is a pedestrian street in Madison which is lined with shops and restaurants.  For the last few years, my mother and I have gone to this massive sidewalk sale each year.  We have it down to a science.  There are a few stores that we know will have good deals on things that we want to buy.  We always get really good deals on things that we might not usually buy.  There is one particular boutique that carries things like Lug bags and Espe wallets in which we always spend some money.  We had a blast this time as well and got some great deals.

The crowded street leading up to the Capital square.  

After shopping in the morning, we decided to do something different in the afternoon.  We found ourselves heading to the Capital brewery...might as well make it a beer weekend, right?  So we went out to Middleton.  They have a great biergarten and a fun little tour.  So much fun!  

We ended our stay in Madison with a trip to the Madison Farmer's Market on Saturday morning.  This is an amazing market and so much fun to go to, if you get there early.  Later in the morning it can get quite crowded.  

Lately, my husband and I have been going back and forth with the idea of possibly moving somewhere.  After returning home from visiting my sister, I kind of had an epiphany about choosing to be happy wherever I am.  This trip to Madison certainly had me remembering many good times in my life as well as enjoying new fun times.  

Wisconsin is not too shabby and I am glad I had a chance to remind myself of that. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Slice of Life: That is NOT a Reuben

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

I love Reuben sandwiches.  I always have loved this perfect creation ever since I was a little kid.  Now, as an adult, I have become quite picky about my Reuben sandwiches.  A Reuben must be on toast that is not too dry, with just the right combination of dressing, sauerkraut, cheese and corned beef.  The corned beef must be tender and melt in your mouth.

I have learned to keep a careful record (at least mentally and to my husband's credit, mostly in his mind) of whether I enjoy this sandwich at each establishment I have tried it in.  There is nothing worse to me than ordering and anticipating a good Reuben sandwich and ending up with a soggy, ridiculous mess.

According to Wikipedia, which is most definitely a dubious source but one that most people turn to for everyday things,  "The Reuben sandwich is a hot sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, with Russian or Thousand Island dressing, and sauerkraut. These are grilled between slices of rye bread."
A Reuben sandwich on Marble Rye. YUM!
So, last week when my brother-in-law took me to a restaurant in the LA area to try their burger, I found myself swayed by the pull of my love for Reubens.  This restaurant, according to my brother-in-law and UrbanSpoon, was quite famous for their pastrami.  Any restaurant that makes good pastrami is sure to also make good corned beef, so I was eager to try a Reuben sandwich there.

I should have had the burger.

Um, people of LA, if it is made with pastrami, IT ISN'T A REUBEN SANDWICH!!!  After I already had my order, my brother-in-law proceeded to tell me that this is common in LA.  He has actually had arguments with other people about it.  WHAT?  Why didn't he tell me?!

Now, to the credit of the establishment we were in, it was a very good pastrami sandwich.  But it was not a Reuben sandwich.  It wasn't even toasted.  It was cold.  I know I should have read the menu better, but really they should not call it what it isn't.  

This was a small lesson about a few things.  

First, it made me think about all of the little regional things that we all take for granted every day.  Would someone from LA come here to Wisconsin and be disappointed that their Reuben sandwich was not made with pastrami?  This reminds me of having a Bloody Mary at brunch last year in LA.  Another regional expectation in Milwaukee? A beer chaser for the Bloody Mary. Out in LA there was not a chaser in sight.  These little things that are so dependent on your region amaze me.   I remember talking to my college roommate about having frozen custard and seeing the absolute look of disgust on her face.  No, I didn't take custard and put it in the freezer...it is a kind of ice cream that we thoroughly enjoy in Wisconsin.  Our country is such a vast place with all kinds of little idiosyncrasies.  So cool.  

Mmm...frozen custard.

Second, it made me think about the power of expectations.  I was vastly disappointed in a very good sandwich because I was expecting something else.  How often does that happen to us?  Think of the last time you went to a movie that people were raving about only to be let down when it didn't meet your expectations.  How often do we expect something different from what we get? And how often does that negatively affect our experience?  I am going to try to be less worried about what I expected and more focused on the good experience.  

So, thank you to that restaurant in LA for the outstanding pastrami sandwich.  It was delicious and the pastrami is certainly something for you to brag about.  But it was NOT a Reuben sandwich.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Slice of Life: Fourth of July

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.
     I used to love the 4th of July.

     When I was a kid we had this Independence Day parade in my neighborhood.  It was not the kind of parade that they close streets for and make floats for.  It was a cheap, noisy, exuberant celebration of the holiday and our neighbors.  We decorated bikes, tricycles, and wagons, and then the whole group of people proceeded to march through the neighborhood throwing confetti, ringing bells, and singing or yelling.  It was a celebration of where we lived as much as the holiday.  We enjoyed being around the other families in the neighborhood and had a free and fun time.
     After the parade, we often loaded up the car and drove off to my grandparents' house.  Each year our extended family could depend on two gatherings, one at Christmas and one on July 4th.  My grandparents lived in a nice neighborhood which was walking distance from one of the bigger parks in Madison where they set off fireworks.  Every year my family had excellent seats for the fireworks in the front yard of my grandparents' house or the balcony.  Kids would be running around and we would pig out on the amazing potluck of treats that had been made for that day.  Some years a group of us kids would walk with a few of the moms to the park, where they had a carnival.  I remember coming back from the carnival with all kinds of junk, which at the time was treasure.  I mean, who wouldn't want a big pair of clown sunglasses with flag designs?  The best part of these days was just the time spent with family.
     As a child, there is nothing better than a free parade followed by a family picnic.  
     Then, in the summer of 1991, when I was 13, this holiday changed forever.  On July 2nd, 1991, my father died.  He was at home when he suffered a second heart attack that his pacemaker just couldn't stop.  I was the one who called 9-1-1 and watched my mother lose her mind with grief.  He was rushed to the hospital but no one could do anything for him at that point.  That summer, the 4th of July celebrations did not exist for us.  The only thing I remember about the week that this happened is that I went out with some friends to get out of the house for a few hours.  We went to a small firework display in a town nearby and all I wanted to do was go home.  I think this is why I think of my dad whenever I see fireworks.  Independence Day is a lot less fun nowadays.

   Today is the 22nd anniversary of my father's death.  I cannot believe it has been so long since I last saw him.  This week I will celebrate the 4th of July with my sister, her husband, and their baby.  I am so excited to share this holiday with them.  With a new baby in the family, maybe it is time to start a new tradition.  So on Thursday we will cookout, have some beer, and enjoy our time together.  Perhaps we will even find some fireworks to watch.

Happy 4th of July Everyone!


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Slice of Life--The Best Laid Plans

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

Lately I have really been reflecting about the way life turns out.  It seems to me that life plans can come and go and they never seem to work out exactly as one had wanted.  My big life plan was to fall in love and get married young so that I could be married a few years before having kids, but still have at least one child before turning 30.  I made this plan in high school (never mind that I did not even have a boyfriend until the summer after I graduated).

My life plan started out well.  I met my husband while studying abroad in Sevilla, Spain and brought him home with me.  I was 22 on my wedding day.  Then came the next part in the plan.  My husband was not so sure he wanted kids at first, but I worked on it  and he came around to the idea.  It took us about six or seven years of being married to get through all the speed bumps in the road.  It is another story for a different post, but lets just say that it took a LOT of work for my husband to feel at home in this country and for the two of us to feel like our marriage was centered and strong.

After this amount of time, I was ready to try for kids.  After all, we had the strong relationship and had had multiple years to enjoy our time together before changing everything.  Now was the time...and I could still have a baby before turning 30 if we hurried it up.  So, we starting trying.  And trying.  And trying.  After four years of trying to get pregnant, we finally decided to investigate what was going on.  I am pretty sure that we waited so long because we didn't want to hear what we knew we would probably hear.  So two summers ago we obediently went through test after test and found out that the chances were awful for us to conceive.  I won't go into details, but we had some tough decisions to make and we are still trying to figure out our path.  It was devastating for me, and still is, to think that I may end up having to settle for being childless.  This was not my plan.

Another thing that was not in the plan?  Being an auntie before being a mother.  My stepbrother and his wife had a baby boy a little over two years ago.  I love getting to spend time with my nephew.  He is such a ham and we enjoy family dinners together.  Now that he is talking more, his personality is really shining through.

Showing off his artwork on the phone.
My nephew and my husband.

And now, as of May 1st, I am an auntie again. This time it has been more special for me because it was my sister who was pregnant.  I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about her since she was very sick throughout her pregnancy.  But now she is healthy and we have a new baby girl in the family.  I came out to California to visit and to help out when my sister goes back to work next week.

Me, the baby, and my sister.
 Looking at these amazing kids, I am so blessed to be an aunt.  I will shower these two children with love and loud toys that annoy their parents.  And I will hope that their parents have a chance to get back at my husband and me in the future.  But for now, no more plans.  Summertime is perfect for lazy days with no plan and fun hanging out with a baby.