This girl loves…making a difference.

An important message...

               An important message…

In this, my eleventh year of teaching, I finally feel like a teacher.

I arrive early, leave late, spend my weekends grading papers, and lesson planning.  I read young adult literature, picture books, and best practices books in my “spare” time.  I worry about my students emotionally and academically.  I feel this responsibility to not only educate them in the humanities but to teach them to be compassionate human beings.

Today we read The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig during our monthly anti-bullying meeting.  I enjoy reading picture books to my middle school students for a variety of reasons but mostly because the illustrations strike them just as deep as the words.  This book was no exception.

In this book we learn about Brian, a young boy who feels invisible.  He’s not picked last for the team, he’s never picked at all.  The children in his class see right through him, including his teacher.  It is only in his drawings that Brian stands out.  That all changes when a new boy, Justin, joins their class.  Justin is Korean and he’s different.  The kids make sure to notice him but not in a way you want to be noticed.  Brian notices Justin and attempts a friendship.  Justin reciprocates and slowly Brian starts to become visible.  It is through their friendship that Brian finally feels seen.

Knowing many of my students sometimes feel as Brian does, I had them do a special exercise to end our meeting.  Usually we end our meeting in a circle, complimenting each other.  Today I asked them to turn to the person to their left and tell them when they “see” that person best.  In response, the students replied, “Thank you for noticing me.”

It was a beautiful exercise and I was proud that I could facilitate this important lesson.

Each day I am afforded the unique and important opportunity to shape young minds.

When my turn came, my student said that they saw me best when I was reading a particularly emotional part of our read aloud or a Langston Hughes poem for our poetry unit.  She said that she loved how excited I get when I teach.

I think, if a student notices this passion, then I must be doing something right.

This girl loves…celebrating writers.

The countless compliment cards my students received after sharing their personal narratives

The countless compliment cards my students received after sharing their personal narratives

Refreshments were purchased.

Tables and chairs were moved.

Personal narratives were printed.

Students and parents were present.

Speech in hand, I began, “Welcome to our first publishing party.” My hands were shaking, my cheeks were flaming, my heart was pounding and all I was doing was welcoming the crowd.

I wasn’t an eleven-year-old preparing to read my very personal narrative.  I wasn’t the one revealing anything about myself.  I wasn’t sitting in front of a crowd waiting for my writing to be assessed.

I was just the teacher.  I was just the one hoping for shock and awe.  I was just the one celebrating the incredible progress my sixth graders had made.

The terror eventually began to subside as my students, one-by-one, read their stories.  I sensed their nerves and sent out silent thoughts to help calm them.  I caught their eyes from the back of the room and smiled reassuringly.  They read with such confidence that I was whisked away into their world, one without fear and anxiety.

As I circulated around the room, listening to their different stores, I no longer saw them as my students, but as writers.

Here were 35 children reading with gusto, their stories slowly unfurling.  Tears pricked my eyes as I listened to the story about the birth of a baby sister.  Laughter filled my lungs as I listened to a story of being locked out of the house by a four-year-old.  Cheers silently escaped my mouth as I listened to a student recount her winning goal.

In the span of 45 minutes these students had successful told their stories, inviting us all to zoom into that one moment in their lives.

Pride.  That is what I felt today.  Pride.  It is what I feel everyday.

 

This girl loves…reflecting.

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Today I sat in the ballroom of a hotel.  Twelve years ago I checked into that hotel, unpacked the contents of my previous life in Florida, and readied myself for a new life in Arizona.

Today I attended a writing conference as a middle school English Language Arts teacher.  Twelve years ago I started an office job, temporarily abandoning my education degree.

Today I thought about all the stories waiting for me to write.  Twelve years ago I was still generating those stories.

Today I felt that I could do anything.  Twelve years ago that idea evaded me.

A lot has changed in the twelve years since I moved to Arizona.  In the span of a young adult’s life I have grown just as much.  My 22-year-old self is unrecognizable to me as I look back.  That 23-year-old girl was a child, a girl with very little real-life experience.  She couldn’t command a classroom of 35.  She couldn’t speak comfortably in a group of people she didn’t know.  She couldn’t see a happy life in the desert because she simply could not see the beauty of her surroundings.

I feel confident in saying that change has come.  That girl has grown into a beautiful, independent woman.  A woman that has started to take risks, to step just outside her comfort zone.  She has learned to grow where she is planted and see the beauty that Arizona has to offer.  She has learned to be a remarkable teacher with an incredible passion for education.

As I look back I wonder: if I told 23-year-old Sara that things would get better–that she would go on to have a wonderful life–if she would believe me.

Would she believe me if I told her that she would live out her dream and move to England for a short time?  Would she believe me if I told her that being in England would change her life?  That she would never feel quite complete unless she was walking the busy streets of London, or the quiet cobblestones of Cambridge?  That the air and the food and the people would brand her soul leaving her forever bound to that country?

Would she believe me if I told her that she would teach for the next ten years, receive her master’s in English education, and begin teaching middle school?  Would she believe me if I told her that she would have students who adore and admire her?  That students from previous classes would run up to her, envelop her in a hug, and say they were so excited to have her as a teacher again?  That they would tell her about a new book they just finished or shove their stories in her face awaiting her approval?  Would she believe me if I told her she would be teaching reading, writing, and Shakespeare?  That “If music be the food of love, play on…” would roll off her students’ tongues with ease because she taught them these profound words?

Would she believe me if I told her that she would volunteer at her synagogue, mingling with groups of people she barely knew?  Would she believe me if I told her that, while making small talk was still a challenge, she would be willing to task risks and attend social groups alone?  That she would engage her peers in discussions of the places she had seen, the knowledge she had gained, and the work she loved.

Time changes a person.  You grow, you explore, you learn qualities about yourself you never thought were possible.  While change does not come easy, it is a necessary part of life and it is time to start embracing it.

This girl loves…being inspired to write.

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The song that started it all

“Writers plan.”

“Writers use dialogue, inner thinking, and precise details.”

“Writers elaborate and add additional scenes.”

“Writers craft powerful leads and endings.”

“And most importantly, writers WRITE!”

These are the mantras I use to explain writing to my sixth grade language arts classes each day.  Maybe if I keep saying it they will eventually get the point, I think to myself.

As my students busily typed on their laptops or put pen to paper in today’s class, I watched as each of their stories unfolded.   A month ago this was not the case.  Heck, a day ago this wasn’t the case.  My students, obedient as they are, could not seem to get their ideas down on a page.  Call it writer’s block or the fear of failure, something just was not clicking for them.

Today there was a noticeable shift.  Maybe all of the writing we have been doing for the past six weeks is final paying off, I thought to myself.

Then I got to thinking about my own writing habits.

I’ve been “writing” a book for years now.  I say, “writing” but what I have been doing mostly is talking about writing.  I haven’t put pen to paper, or in my case, fingers to keys, in almost six months.  Sure, I’ve blogged here and there.  I’ve journaled occasionally.  I’ve sent countless emails.  I just haven’t really written.

Until today.

Seeing my students writing  furiously today inspired me to do the same.  I keep preaching about how writing everyday is going to build their stamina as writers but I refused to see how it was also improving my own.

In starting this writing program with my students, I’ve made a promise to myself to publish a blog once a week.  So far I’ve made good on that promise.  I’ve taken chances publishing some of my pieces.  And in the process, I’ve published some great pieces and some not-so-great pieces.  I’ve taken the advice I’ve given my students and I’ve written. 

Today that writing paid off.  I was able, with ease, to write another scene in my book.  I used the same strategies that I’ve been teaching my students–dialogue, inner thinking, precise details–and it totally worked for me.  After my furious writing, I was left with a scene I was pretty satisfied with.  My dialogue flowed and was realistic.  My inner thinking conveyed what the character’s true thoughts were.  And my precise details took me back to that exact moment in time, the day I visited Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Maybe it’s the online Shakespeare class I started only last night.  Maybe it’s the song, “Moth’s Wings” playing on shuffle every now and again.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the writing I’ve been doing each week that gave me the confidence to go back to my book and begin writing again.  Whatever the case may be, it feels good to “write” again.

This girl loves…tradition.

Nana's special recipe

Nana’s special recipe

“I really want a pastrami sandwich.  Do you want to go to Chompie’s for dinner?”  My brother asked after we finished our weekly yoga class.  “I’m sick of dorm food.  I just need to get away.  I need a taste of home.”  He sighed.

I drove us over to Chompie’s where we dined on pastrami sandwiches and chicken soup, followed by a traditional Black and White cookie for dessert.  Bellies full and content, I got to thinking about traditions.

We are in preparations, we Jews, for the High Holy Days.  Honey cakes and kefelach have been baked.  Meats have been bought.  Challah has been ordered.  Dress clothes have been laid out.  Prayer books have been dusted off.  Apologies have been made.  The shofar has begun to blow, alerting us to the coming of a New Year.

Perhaps in my own preparations, my mind has been keenly aware of the other traditions I often take for granted.

The countless b’nai mitzvah I have attended have begun to run together.  Two weekends ago, an exception was made.  It was the bar mitzvah of a former third grade student.  This simcha (celebration) was different this time.  It was solemn and humble.  The focus was not on the raging, glitzy and expensive party that night, but on the ceremony.  It was about this boy becoming a man in the Jewish community.  As I listened to him chant I couldn’t help but think about this little boy; the little boy whose mother got onto him for wearing mix-matched socks for picture day.  That little boy was taking part in a tradition that spanned centuries.  This link to the past while also contemplating the future is what makes a bar or bat mitzvah so unique.

The traditions carried on through the next weekend.  To kick off the high holidays I helped prepare my shul (synagogue) for the high holidays.  As a part of this preparation we ushered in the new week with Havdalah.  This is a special candle-lit service that ends the Sabbath and starts a new week.  I couldn’t escape the thought that this Havdallah was somehow more special than all the rest.  This Havdalah was the start the week of Rosh Hashanah.  As we sang, arm-in-arm, I thought about the week ahead.  I thought about the time I was going to be able to spend with my family.  I thought about the meditations I would take part in during services.  I thought about how I would make my new  year different, better, sweeter than the one prior.  I reflected on my past year–a year of sadness and fear, joy and independence.  As the flame was extinguished I reveled in the sights of my community, the feel of my mother’s arms around me, the smells of the lingering summer heat, and the sense of contentment I felt.

Our traditions remind us of where we came from and where we are going but most of all, our traditions remind us to breathe in the now.

 

This girl loves…a bad day gone good.

Words that inspire...

Words that inspire…

Do you ever have one of those days where you just want to be somewhere else?  You wake up and you just want to crawl back into bed.  You want to drink your tea and watch Netflix or curl up with that book you just started.

Today was one of those days.  That is until I got to school.

It started with Her Story.

She had turned it in early because she was going to be out of class for a few days.  I saw her over the weekend and she asked if I had read her story yet.  I told her I hadn’t had  chance, but that it was on my desk waiting for me.  She didn’t know of my migraine on Friday or the mound of papers sitting on my desk.  Then I saw her at school today and she asked again, “Have you read my story?”  I felt like the world’s worst teacher.  It was still sitting, unread, on my desk.  So I told her, “I have a free period next hour and I promise I’ll read it then.”  Had I known that this piece would change my entire outlook on the day and reconfirm why I love being a humanities teacher, I would have fought through the pain of my migraine and put this on the top of my “to-grade” pile.

I recall this student saying she had nothing to write about during language arts last week.  I asked her to look through her chart of ideas and try to find something.  After a few failed attempts, she asked if she could write about not being able to write.  Feeling that students need to take chances as writers I said, “You can try.”  And try she did.

Throughout her I-can’t-think-of-anything-to-write story, she wrote a piece full of dialogue, inner thinking, and precise details.  (These are all strategies we are currently emphasizing in class in order to write powerful personal narratives.)  My favorite parts included the dialogue between us, particularly the part when I told her she could try.  I like to think she included this because allowing her to try was what made this beautiful piece of writing come to light.  The imagery created was one that teachers dream about, “I try to think of something to write but my mind fees like a black hole swallowing every idea.”  Brilliant!

Then, to put a cherry on top of an already inspired morning, my students surprised me with their text-to-text connections between A Snicker of Magic and The Dot.  

Today was International Dot Day and my class celebrated by reading the book The Dot and completing an art project using pointillism.  In discussing the theme of the book, three of my boys said that they thought the book was trying to tell us what our shared-reading book was trying to tell us.  That, everyone has a talent.  Making these text-to-text connections shows their deeper thinking and understanding of the stories they are reading.  What more could a teacher ask for?

To round out the day, while having dinner with my youngest brother, I told him of today’s “highs”.  He said offhandedly, “It’s so interesting to see how your profession brings out your passions.  You became a teacher because you were told you’d be good at it and, through teaching, your passions have ignited.”  I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment of today’s events.

I have known since the first day I set foot in my own classroom that I wanted to teach.  Today, and other days like today, reminded me why I still want to teach.  These are the days that keep me going.

 

This girl loves…making connections.

The calm after the storm.

The calm after the storm.

My day began with a resounding beep, beep, beep.  Once at 3am, again at 4:45am, and finally at 6:30am.  The beeping was followed by tings from text messages and ding-a-lings from the phone.  What was all the commotion about so early on a Monday morning?

A storm had hit.  Roads were flooded.  Panic ensued.

News reporters spoke urgently of the massive, wide-spread flooding throughout our desert valley.  Cars were stuck.  People were stranded.  Schools were closing one by one.

My brother, safely at work, helping to report on the happenings around the valley, phoned me to ask that I let his dog out because he wasn’t sure when he would be home to do so.  I obliged and Kelev and I sat watching, intently, as the television reports literally flooded the airwaves.

As APS and ADOT tweeted that people should refrain from using the roads, I checked my email to see if my school was following the countless others and closing.  The minutes ticked by and I began to get more anxious.  Finally, a message arrived saying we would be open for the day.  Apparently the flooding was not severe enough to warrant a closure.

Disappointed by the news, I glanced out the sliding glass door to see the steady rain drop pelt my grassy lawn.  What was I going to do?  If the roads were flooded then how would I get to school?  Would there be any students there to teach?  Would I be the sucker that went out blindly into the torrential downpour only to be stuck in a ditch and paying a hefty “stupid motorist” fine?

Yes.  Yes, I would.  Because I was a rule follower.

Much like the character from one of my favorite biblical stories, I was willing to take direction and, no matter the cost, do what I was told.  I felt a sort of kinship with my friend, Noah.  Sure, he’s received a bad reputation for only saving his family and two of every kind of animal, but he did take direction.  No, he wasn’t the chosen one [Abraham] who would father a great nation.  He was the most righteous of his time, not the most righteous.  Compared to the rest, he was the lesser of the two evils so he was spared the death and devastation of the flood.

After forty days and forty nights, the story goes, the rains stopped.  The water receded.  A promise was made and Noah survived.

Because of Noah’s exemplary rule following, I am here today.  Because of my rule following, my students read, wrote, and learned a little bit of flexibility today.  They soldiered on as the rain damped their shoes but not their spirit.  They moved from classroom to classroom throughout the day because ours was without A/C.  They did this all without complaint.  For any of you who have ever met a pre-teen, without complaint is a pretty big deal.

Was today the greatest of days?  Was it a day that changed the academic lives of my students?  No.  But it was worth writing about.  And, seeing as this is a blog, I’d count that as a pretty significant event.

This girl loves…feeling inspired.

 

A glimpse of beauty

A glimpse of beauty

Inspiration comes to me in many forms: a touching passage, a beautiful scene, a soft melody, a lingering hug, a flavorful meal, and sometimes, a great movie.

Today I saw two movies that inspired me: The Hundred-Foot Journey and Begin Again.  Each of them affected me in a different way.  The former made me hungry for not only food, but for life.  The latter made me hungry for inspiration.

Since beginning a new writing program at my school, I’ve been keenly aware of my thoughts and their potential stories.  Seeing Begin Again, I wondered why I was so affected.  What was it about this movie that moved me like a passage from one of my favorite books?  What was it about this movie that sent chills down my spin; chills like the ones I get after hearing a Broadway singer belt the lyrics to a finale?  Then I had it.

It was real.

The movie felt tangible.  It felt achievable.  It gave me hope that I might one day inspire others.

I’ve spent my life hiding in the shadows of my own life.  I’ve stood idly by as others took their place in the spotlight.  I could excuse my behavior by saying that I was shy and slightly awkward, but it would be just that, an excuse.

I’ve decided that it is time to stop hiding.

There is so much I want to share with the world.  I want to share my passions and that is why I write.  I make mistakes and I write again.  I know that it’s not about creating a masterpiece that stops the world in its tracks.  No, it’s not about that.  It’s about practice and building endurance.  It’s about writing, writing, and more writing.  Then, maybe one day I’ll be that great writer I want to be.

One day I’ll write something that does stop the world in its tracks and what will I do then?  I’ll do it again.

 

This girl loves…summer break.

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A different point of view.

What I did on my summer vacation, a clichéd topic for back to school.  This summer was a summer of moments leading up to a change in my point of view.

The summer began gazing into the deep canyon formed by the mighty Colorado, aka The Grand Canyon.  Gazing out into the vast unknown provided the platform that would be my summer.  Emptiness filled my soul for months after suffering the loss of my beloved Bagel.  My heart felt much like that vast Canyon, empty and unexplored.

As the weeks passed, it soon began to fill.

Yoga breaths sent peace to the parts of my body aching.  Each breath taken showed my body that it was possible to heal.  With yoga and traveling I was able to restore a sense of my former self.

The waves of the churning Pacific acted as arms, reaching out and removing stresses deeply rooted in my bones.  The carefree dipping of my toes in the cold, salty sea cleansed my muscles, relieving the tension mounting for months.  The flavors of the California cuisine filled my taste buds, increasing this hunger for life I had forgotten existed.

In Utah, Shakespeare’s words floated through my mind, finally filling it with something other than pain.  The sounds of actors reciting poetry of Sondheim and Austen filled my eyes with tears of happiness instead of tears of sadness.   The sound and smell of rain washed away the old, making way for the new.   Laughter filled my lungs, purifying my spirit.

Honking horns and the hustle and bustle of the Vegas strip took to me to another place and time, where I did not exist but for that one moment.  The lights of the city blinded my eyes to the cold, hard reality of life.  Crisp sheets and soft pillows greeted my tired body, restoring peace and serenity once again.

Friends and family, with listening ears and open hearts, made the final adjustments to this new point of view.

Life is a guest house as Rumi says and one must be open to all (even that which scares us most) in order to make room for the goodness life has in store for us.  I am ready to greet that which comes into my life with a warm smile and a hot cup of tea.

 

 

This girl loves…healing.

Yoga--good for the soul

Yoga–good for the soul

My brother asked me how I was feeling today and I answered honestly, healed.  I feel like I am finally healing.

Each week for the past four weeks I have been practicing yoga.  This idea of breathing has really resonated with me.  To most, breathing is something we do without thinking.  It’s done with automaticity.  That’s a good thing, for otherwise, we would die.  For that automaticity, I am truly grateful.  But I’m also grateful for this newfound ability of “learning to breathe”.

With each movement in yoga we are encouraged to inhale and exhale.  Breathing in and out when I am supposed to has been a struggle.  That is, until today.

When I started yoga four weeks ago, I paired it with a nighttime meditation class.  My body did not care for this, or rather, my mind did not.  For it was in this meditation that I experienced so much anxiety and fear.  I found my breath and tried to breathe into this anxiety, calming myself from the inside out.  It seemed to work but from that point on I was filled with fear that it would happen again.  Each time that fear crept up I breathed into it.  Slowly, I learned to quiet my mind and listen to my body.  I decided that meditation, at this point, was too much for my body and I decided to just stick with yoga.  Yoga, I decided, just made me feel good from the tips of my toes to the ends of my ears.

So each week I have practiced at the same studio with the same instructors.  Each week I’ve learned something new about my body and, by extension, myself.  Last week I learned half pigeon pose, a pose that gave me more trouble than I thought it was worth.  Though, once conquered I knew and felt its importance.   The week before that I learned about my own flexibility.  I reminded my muscles that they could, at one time, stretch to their fullest.  I knew that if I could do it before, I could do it again.  I literally watched myself become increasingly more flexible as the class went on.  By the time the hour was up, I was able to grasp my feet firmly, while letting my hips go loose, in happy baby pose.  It was a fiercely emotional experience, one I smiled through.

This week was the ultimate breakthrough though because his week, I learned how to breathe.

In today’s session, my instructor told us to listen to our bodies, find our breath, and move our bodies in sync.  She said to pay close attention to what our body was telling us.  She told us to listen to our body and to move with that knowledge in mind.  For the first time, downward dog didn’t feel like a strain.  It felt natural.

As I was leaving yoga I thanked my instructor for such a meaningful class.  She said, “It’s all you.”  I loved how it was all brought back to me because if I can learn about myself then I can heal myself.  I can learn to breathe through the pain of losses and I can learn to breathe through the joy of gains.  It reminds me of the quote that “this too shall pass”.  What makes us happiest will eventually pass and what makes us sad will also pass.  We only need but to breathe.