An Open Letter To My Students

Sunday, June 9, 2019

An Open Letter To My Students:

Two more days. That’s all we have left. Two more days that you’ll bound through my door, maybe popping over to my desk to share something before you even put your bookbag down.  Two more days that I’ll remind you to be quiet after the bell rings. Two more days to read and work math problems together. Two more days that you’ll cut in front of each other lining up for lunch, and I’ll move someone to the back of the line. Two more days to learn more about each other, to talk and to argue, to listen and to laugh. One more day when I’ll say, “See you tomorrow,” and then the next day, our time together will be done.

We have two more days that I probably would have taken for granted before. This school year, for all the experiences that have crept by, slowly and sometimes painfully, this last day of school has come way too fast. There was so much more that I wanted to share with you—strategies we haven’t explored, books we didn’t read, discussions we haven’t delved into, lessons we haven’t yet learned. This year, I’m left feeling (knowing) I haven’t done enough.

When the accident happened, that first week in the hospital I didn’t cry much, if at all. It took too much energy and it hurt a lot to move, so I just did what I had to do. Crying wasn’t a must, so it didn’t get done. But the last couple of days there, when the therapists and doctors came by more often, when they started talking about home and my prognosis and the future, I kept asking, “How long until I can go back to school?” I didn’t like the answer, so I asked again and again. “Weeks.” “Months.” “You don’t plan to go back this school year, do you?” I was shocked. I was indignant. I was in denial. And that was when I finally cried.        

I cried because I was afraid you couldn’t make it that long without me. I would have said I was crying for you, but really, I was crying for me. I cried because I love being your teacher, and while I was so grateful for your substitute teachers, I was sad it wouldn’t be me there to teach you. I cried because I missed you, and because there is nowhere I’d rather be each day than with you. Then, I didn’t know when (if at all) I’d be back at school, and I hated that feeling.

The bright side was that we’d already had one-third of the school year together. You knew my expectations, you knew how to run our classroom, and you stepped up and helped the teachers who filled in for me while I was gone. You picked up where I left off, running your own morning meetings, working so hard in all your subjects, trying to behave and get along with each other, all the while wearing little purple ribbons, a reminder that my heart was right there with you. You took field trips, hoped for (and enjoyed) snow days, performed in our holiday play, and exchanged Valentine’s cards, all the while wondering when I’d be back. I was wondering too!

I was doing more than wondering though. I was working hard, not only writing lesson plans, grading your work, and answering your weekly letters, but doing exercises every day, determined to be back as soon as possible. You ended up having 64 school days without me—one-third of the school year with those ladies who stepped up and filled my shoes, and you made both them and me proud. Because of what happened to US, you learned more than reading and math this year; you learned life lessons. You learned that sometimes bad things happen that are out of our control, and it’s up to us to make the best of difficult situations. WE learned patience, perseverance and perspective.

I’ll never forget how it felt to finally be back with you in our classroom. For the last one-third of this school year, we’ve grown so much together. You are the reason I was able to come back as “soon” as I did; I knew you would help me, and you have so much.  You’ve jumped up to do anything I’ve needed you to do and you’ve been flexible when I’ve changed our routines to make things easier on me physically. Sometimes I’ve felt guilty about how well-behaved you’ve been since I’ve been back—this job isn’t supposed to be easy, and you’ve made it so easy for me. You’ve cheered me on, telling me not to be embarrassed about my limp and encouraging me as it’s starting to improve. Most of all, from the beginning, you’ve given me a reason to want to get better each day. 

I hope none of us ever have another school year quite like this one, but I also hope none of us ever forget what we’ve felt and learned going through this together. Because of that fall afternoon when I said, “See you tomorrow!” and didn’t see you until almost four months later, we know that we can never take a single day of our lives for granted. Whether or not you remember anything else from this school year, I hope that lesson will stick with you forever. 

For now, we’ve got two more days. Let’s make the most of them!

Love always, 
Mrs. Jones

He Loves You

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

“He loves you, He loves you, He loves you.”

My pastor has developed a habit (intentionally no doubt) of closing sermons with this repetitive chorus. I imagine he started saying it long before I truly noticed, but more recently, I feel the redeeming power of those words deep in my soul. It’s not that I didn’t know that truth before, both in my head and in my heart. It’s just that I hadn’t experienced it quite so emphatically.

Six months ago tonight, I came within arm’s reach of losing my life. Every single day, I think of the other person who did, unfortunately, lose her life in that dark, terrifying moment, and I pray for the two little lives that were also miraculously spared. I’ll always wonder why it had to happen the way it did, even while the next thought echoes in my head: why not? Each of us are constantly one decision, (good or bad), one turn (left or right), one second (faster or slower) away from finding ourselves in a similar situation. 

For now, the effects of that night are still outwardly obvious with the limp in each step I take. But long before the last six months, I’ve wrestled with those same questions- “why? why not?”– for a less visible reason. While the injuries sustained in the car accident are the most intense physical pain I’ve ever felt, it doesn’t compare with the emotional pain I’ve felt due to not being able to have children. Sunday was Mother’s Day though and I found, as I suspected I might, that it didn’t hurt quite like it used to. 

The last six months I’ve gained new perspective in a lot of areas, and this is one of them. For years, I’d wrestled with the idea that God withheld the blessing of children from us. I’ve often said that my faith made our infertility harder to understand rather than easier. I absolutely knew God loved me, so it was hard for me to understand why He wouldn’t give me this desire of my heart. As months turned into years that eventually neared a decade, it was easy to silently wonder whether He loved me at all, though that went against everything I believed. 

We’ve all questioned whether or not God hears our prayers. We’ve doubted His provision and tried to control our own fate. Each of us has wondered if this life has purpose and sometimes, in the darkest moments, if God sees us at all. Let me calm each fear for you: He hears your prayers. He will provide and He has everything under control. He has a clear purpose for your life, and His eyes are set on you always, most fixed in those moments you need Him most.

You don’t survive a situation like I found myself in six months ago tonight with any doubt in your mind that God has a plan. While my steps have been wobbly since that night, my faith has never wavered less. Whatever thorn Satan uses to cause you to doubt God’s love, recognize it for just that: a tool of the deceiver. 

Learn from my mistakes. It shouldn’t take an earsplitting, heart-wrenching crash for us to hear the quiet, affirming truth God whispers: He loves you. He loves you. He loves you.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

They say that in moments of peril your life flashes before your eyes.  For me, the opposite was true. In the seconds before a head-on collision that could’ve easily claimed my life, I didn’t reflect on my past, but my future. As I topped a hill and found myself speeding toward not two--but four-- headlights on a dark and rainy night, I thought, this is how people die. Honestly, in those fleeting seconds before impact, my heart called out for Jesus and I envisioned Him welcoming me to heaven.

Instead, seconds later, I found myself seriously injured, impossibly trapped and eerily alone in the driver’s seat of my Ford Explorer. I had been on the phone with my husband, but sensed we had lost connection as I cried out, “Call 911! I’ve been in a bad wreck… really bad.” That feeling of helplessness and isolation led me to again call out to God, this time audibly. I whispered, “God, I want to survive this and if I can, give me the strength I'll need. If not, I know I’ll be with you.” 

A peace immediately fell upon me. I knew no matter what happened next, the Holy Spirit would carry me through. I’m a person of deep faith, but I’m no saint.  I question, I doubt, I falter, I stray. But when I was a little girl, I accepted the gift of salvation, and that gift is irrevocable. That’s never been as clear to me as it was that night… over an hour trapped in that SUV and the agonizing hours that followed, and never did I panic. When it came down to it, there was nothing to fear.  

To revoke means to take back.  My niece turned one last month, and that girl loves to eat. Often, as she snacks, she’ll offer one of us a morsel, but as soon as we reach for it, she takes it back. She likes the idea of offering it, likes to see us smile and reach for it, but when it comes down to it, she keeps her precious snack.  Surely, she thinks, we couldn’t possibly enjoy it as much as she will.

How thankful we should be that when God reached down His hand to Earth and offered us His Son, He didn’t take it back. Even when we overlook, misunderstand, and persecute the gift, He doesn’t take it back. Jesus was and still is offered to all of us, irrevocably. To have Jesus means to have peace that passes all understanding. Nothing and no one can take that away.

Not only are His gifts irrevocable, so is His calling. Too often I haven’t lived this truth in the day to day. More than I like to admit, I’ve questioned my purpose and doubted God’s plan.  Did He really call me to be this man’s wife if I can’t bear his children? (I falter…) Am I making a big enough difference in this world if we don’t adopt a child of our own? (I stray…) 

And then He sets my feet back on the path in the most unexpected and painful of ways. But even in the shock and the hurt, there is purpose.  Yes, that man who rushed to your side and never left... you are meant to be his.  And all those others in your life... family, friends, students, youth group, church family... they need you. This is your calling. Wife. Teacher. Leader. Sister. Aunt. Daughter. Friend. Each is irrevocable.  

Perhaps your holiday season hasn’t been as dramatic as mine, but God’s love for you is no less strong. He has offered you His Son, and He has called you to a life that is pleasing to Him and uplifting to others. Even when you falter, even when you stray… He won’t take it back.  The opposite of to revoke is to continue and that’s how it is with God’s love. When you’re hurt, when you’re stuck, when you’re alone, His love continues. From that baby in the manger until the darkest rainy night of today, it keeps on…  and for that I am most grateful.

Inspiring Readers With Character Traits and Theme

Thursday, October 11, 2018
It’s my first mentor text link-up ever, and I couldn’t be more excited to Celebrate Diversity with the talented ladies of The Reading Crew!  If you know me, you know keeping things simple is not my strength. In that spirit, I chose not one but two books to share with you today: a chapter book and its perfect picture book companion.  

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.)

A little about the books…

In 2016, Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, published a must-read chapter book for upper elementary students called The Hero Two Doors Down. It’s based on the true story of the friendship between Jackie Robinson and a boy named Steve who lived two houses down from her parents when her father played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Steve was part of a Jewish family in a traditionally Jewish but quickly diversifying neighborhood in the late 1940s.
Steve was thrilled about his new neighbor who would soon become his friend, and he had no idea how many life lessons about patience, honor and self-control that Jackie would teach him. In turn, students learn many of the same lessons while reading. Robinson’s perspective as Jackie Robinson’s daughter and her continued real life friendship with the main character, Steve, makes for an insightful read for children and adults alike.
A week after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they signed another player from the Negro Leagues named Roy Campanella. In 2007, David A. Adler (also author of the Cam Jansen series) published Campy: The Story of Ray Campanella. “Campy” endured the same prejudice and uphill battle that Robinson did in Major League Baseball. Also like Robinson, Campy rose to fame thanks to his hard work and focus, winning awards for many years.  

A decade later, Campy’s baseball career was cut short after an automobile accident left him permanently injured, never to walk again. Campy’s heroic qualities that had helped him strive to break the color barrier in baseball then had to be employed to break personal barriers of his own, which he did successfully. Both these books reveal admirable character traits in the main characters that lend themselves to discovering inspirational themes. 

How I teach with these books…

The Hero Two Doors Down was a student favorite in my classroom when I taught it through one of my Novel Units for the first time. Last year, I taught 32 students reading, and 24 of them were boys! I loved watching all those boys gain a true admiration for Jackie Robinson simply through reading this book. The impact was surely more lasting than the way we would’ve done it ten years ago—through an article or video in February.
I had had Campy in my classroom for years and admittedly had never read it to a class; it had been given to me at some point along the way. Thankfully, the name rang a bell with me when it came up several times in The Hero Two Doors Down and I’ve been able to capitalize on also teaching this parallel story.  As we read the novel, students completed this FREE Book Walk, which address comprehension and reading skills like sequence, character traits, and theme.
Being exposed to diverse books builds character; many times the authors and characters of diverse books have a depth of character unknown to students like mine who are surrounded by people much like themselves. The way both Jackie and Campy had to unjustly fight for dreams that my students naively take for granted grabbed their attention. For that reason, inspiring my students with positive character traits in these stories, the same way Jackie influenced Steve positively in The Hero Two Doors Down, was an easy teaching decision. I used these quote sorts to point out character traits of the main characters in both books.
Character traits and theme are two of our most important and most difficult to grasp reading standards in the upper elementary grades. Making connections is an important way to help students synthesize information, which is why I like to connect character traits to theme. If students can get a handle on one, this strategy will help them understand the other.  After completing the sorts shown above (click for FREE download) and having a class discussion based on the question in the thought bubble, I create an anchor chart with my students. We relate character traits to theme, and build on this concept throughout the year as we read other novels.
Thanks for stopping for! Hop to the other blogs shared in this link-up for some amazing ideas for celebrating diversity in your classroom with some great books. 

Free and Easy with Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Did you know my Sarah, Plain and Tall Comprehension Packet is my featured freebie on TPT and has been downloaded nearly 20,000 times? That number still staggers me. I just kicked off the year with with this Comprehension Packet with my own class, and I'm here to share six free, fantastic ideas for teaching this beloved book.

The first reading skill I focus on each year is genre, and this novel provides an excellent yet accessible example of historical fiction. What I mean by that is that other than I Survived books, which I love!), many of my students come to me with limited experience with historical fiction. Many upper grades historical fiction books are tough reads, but this one is manageable in most any third, fourth or fifth grade classroom. This book short (58 pages),  has a low word count (under 10,000) and has less than ten chapters (nine to be exact).

The story takes place in the late 1800's in the prairie lands of the midwestern United States. If you haven't read this book, the premise is that a widower with two children places an ad for a wife and a lady named Sarah (who is plain and tall) comes from Maine to give it a shot. The first day we read, we talked about how this seemed like such a strange concept and definitely let us know the story was set in the past. But then I asked, "How is this similar to dating practices today?" It took my kids NO time to make the connection to dating websites and idea #1 was born...

I made a quick, simple Google slide and pushed it out to my kids (we are a Google school system). They had so much fun creating a "dating profile" for either Papa (Jacob) or Sarah (their choice) and called it which the kids thought was hilarious. This was their first attempt at a Google slide to be shared in class, and they did a good job considering. I even included one box where they had to insert a photo that they believed could represent what Papa or Sarah looked like. If your students don't have access to Google, you could use this simple template and delete the text boxes and "insert photo here" before printing.  Click here to access!

A big theme of this story is patience as the narrator, Anna, waits to see if Sarah will like life on the prairie with her family or if she'll return home to Maine, which she talks about often. We looked at these two locations on the map, but I wanted my students to have an even better sense of the contrast of the two settings, so we did some research.

If you don't have Epic set up for your classroom, why not? It's an amazing, FREE resource for online viewing of books, and it has a wealth of nonfiction easy reads. I went on and searched for Sarah, Plain and Tall and immediately found a saved collection by a third grade teacher. I saved the collection to my library, shared the "shelf" with my students, and they did some quick research while making a Venn diagram comparing Maine and the prairie. It was so easy and informative!

One of my favorite (and SIMPLEST) novel activities is to have the students choose a character (animals count!), setting or object from the story, create it and explain its significance to the plot on an index card. This activity makes an eye-catching hall display and gives those artistic learners a chance to express themselves. This works with any book, just wait until you are almost done or completely done reading. Which brings me to my after reading activities...

I have Kahoot quizzes for vocabulary of many of my Novel Units.  We played Kahoot for the first time this past week, and this is a screenshot of my Instagram story that day. My kids were literally squealing with excitement over playing this online game! To access my Sarah, Plain and Tall Kahoot, make sure you have a Kahoot account and click here.

This next idea is the only one that isn't entirely free (unless you count the fact that you must have technology to play Kahoot), but it's WELL worth it! There is a Sarah, Plain and Tall full length Hallmark movie that was made in 1990. I don't always show the movie every time we read a book for which one exists, but this one is a must-show! It's rated G and it follows VERY closely to the plot of the book, often using exact quotes and vocabulary words. It stars Glenn Close (one of my students said, "That's the lady from 101 Dalmatians!") and Christopher Walken. Right now, it's showing on Amazon Prime for only $8.49! To order your own copy on Amazon, click here.

I also created a Movie Companion for my students to follow along with as they watched the movie. You can download a free copy by clicking here.

Last, but not least, download my FREE Sarah, Plain and Tall products on TPT! They are truly everything you need to teach this book effectively. Once you click on the link for the packet, you'll also find links to FREE vocabulary activities and a final test. Please feel free to share feedback, questions or suggestions. I truly love this book and believe you and your students will too!

How To Teach 30+ Kids Without Losing Your...

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What’s your “perfect” class size?  For me, it’s 24: a number with 8 factors and so many ways to divide students and table groups evenly. Twenty-four is enough to feel like you’re pulling your weight without feeling like you’re pulling your hair out. Last year, I had another class size with a lot of factors: 32.  I more than pulled my weight and yes, at times, I pulled my hair out. 

Today, I piled up half a dozen desks that I won’t need this year in the hall outside my classroom. I will admit I smiled at the promise of a more manageable class size.  I also was hit with the realization that last year wasn’t as bad as I feared.  If you don't already, soon you’ll have your class list in your hand.  What if your number is closer to three dozen than two? 

It won’t be perfect, but it also doesn’t have to be as bad as you fear.  
Here’s how to teach 30+ kids without losing your…

Resist the urge to complain about your numbers. Verbalizing your fears (and your gripes) not only dampens your reputation but also reinforces negative self-talk. In other words, you’ll have others believing you’ve written off your school year, and before you know it, you'll do just that. Reflect on your past experience; if you’ve been doing this for any time at all, you’ve faced and overcome other challenges.  This year will be no different. 

I spent two hours at Open House last year convincing parents that combining two entire third grade classes into one fourth grade class was no big deal. I said it until I believed it, even though there WERE times when it was a big deal. I gave myself a head start on positivity and in turn, sent those parents away feeling positively about their child’s school year.  Words matter, to both the speaker and the listener. 

sense of community
Speaking of those parents, get them involved! Don’t let the sheer numbers scare you off from making individual contact. With larger class sizes comes a bigger chance that there are parents with the time and willingness to get involved in your classroom. Think of things those parents can do for you, more than ever before! This is not the year to hold onto your pride. 

Last year, I had parents sort, file and stuff communication folders, prepare Scholastic book orders to be sent home, cut laminating and other classroom materials, etc. I kept a medium-sized plastic tote in my classroom and any time I started a task that could wait and could be done by a volunteer, I put it in that tote.  On any given week, 3-4 parents came by to help me. I know not everyone works in a school with that kind of parent population but if you do, take advantage of it. If you’re a control freak (like me), you can always go back to doing more for yourself next year. 

The more important part of your classroom community is of course, your students. Find ways to connect with each and every one of them, and to make sure they connect with each other. You’ll have to be vigilant to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Take advantage of small moments to chat with students individually (before school, lunch, recess, after school, etc.) and get to know them each on a personal level. If you haven’t done Morning Meeting before, this is the year to start! (blog post coming soon…)

Don’t let a large class size scare you into thinking you can’t make as big of an impact this year.  That simply isn’t true. In some places, 30+ kids is the norm. Look into different ways to run your classroom to make it work—small groups, peer tutoring, technology. Think outside the box! Routine and procedures will never be as important as this year. If you don’t have a rule for it, make one. Kids are good about rising to the occasion as long as you set up a system in which they have the chance.

This past year I had higher math test scores than ever before, much to my surprise. Honestly I think having so many students kept me on my toes and caused me to make more accommodations to make sure I was reaching them all. For example, I offered free one-on-one math tutoring sessions before school in the weeks leading up to our end-of-grade tests. Because of my concern that the students weren’t getting the individualized attention they needed in class, I went the extra mile. You’ll find ways to do the same. 

Take it one day at a time.  It may be one of those years where you count the days. But we all have those for one reason or another. It doesn’t mean the days count less and it doesn’t mean you love each of those students any less. Be patient, and be kind: both to yourself and to those 30+ kids!

Don't overcommit. This is not the year to start a new club or chair a new committee unless you have to. Last fall I missed an entire week of school with the flu for the first time in my teaching career. Coincidence? Probably not... Practice saying "no" when you can so you can stay healthy for all those kiddos! No one wants to sub for you when you have 30+ kids... ;)

Bottom line: a year ago, I would’ve preferred that my class list have 24 names instead of 32. But you know what? After 180 days of teaching 32 kids, there’s no possible way I could choose which eight I wouldn’t want to get to know and learn with.  Each name on that list is an opportunity to touch a life and for you to grow as an educator.  Don’t begrudge that, and don’t take it for granted.  It won’t be perfect, but you’re a teacher…what is? 

When You Find Out Your Child's Teacher...

Monday, July 30, 2018
Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve scampering down a hot driveway in the August sun to our mailbox, anxious to see if my teacher assignment had arrived.  When it did, I’d rush in the house, hands shaking, and open the letter, facing my fate for that school year.  I’d then share the news with my mom and she’d say something encouraging before I made frantic phone calls to my friends to find out the content of their letters.

So many things have changed, but some schools still handle teacher assignments this way. Others send emails, post teacher assignments on the wall at Back to School Night or maybe even inform families of teacher assignments for the next year when the previous school year is done. However the news is handled, one thing hasn’t changed: it’s big news. 

How we as adults handle this news is important. Children’s feelings are impacted by adult behaviors—more than we often take into account. When I was growing up, I guarantee you that my mom had an opinion about which teacher she’d like me to have most years. However, I don’t remember ever being aware of that. She’d smile, and find something positive to say (no matter what).  Never once did she call the school and complain, talk negatively to other parents about my assignment, or show an ounce of disappointment on her face. Looking back, I’m sure she was less than thrilled at what that letter said at times. But I never knew it.

Every single first day of school, I was excited. I loved school, no matter who my teacher was. Of course, some teachers I loved more than others, and I’m sure my mom felt the same way.  But she gave every one of them the benefit of the doubt, so I learned to do the same. And in doing so, I learned how to function and even thrive with various teaching styles and personalities. Each year of my elementary school experience was different, but every teacher I had taught me academics and, more importantly, something new about myself. 

When you find out your child’s teacher, know this: no one does this job because it’s easy. They do it because they love teaching and they love children—and that means they love your child. Every teacher in your child’s school will not only teach your child academics but they’ll also help your child grow as a person, and isn’t that what the school experience is all about? So many times I’ve "talked up" other teachers to parents who aren’t so sure about their child's assignment.  Every single teacher has something positive to offer! What if parents encouraged each other the same way?

When you find out your child’s teacher, consider this: what’s best for your child isn’t always having the “most popular” teacher or the teacher your family already knows. Sometimes your child grows the most by having a teacher completely different than the familiar. My kindergarten teacher was a smart, sweet black lady named Mrs. Anderson. My most vivid memory of her involves sitting on a carpet and singing “Bill Grogan’s Goat” while she played the accordion. She was nothing like my mom and I doubt that my parents knew a thing about her before they received that letter.  But that was fine and she was wonderful!

When you find out your child’s teacher, remember this: time flies. Your child will experience 6,570 days of life before reaching adulthood, and only 180 days will be spent with this year’s teacher, whether it was the one you’d been hoping for or the one you hadn’t. Capitalize on these teachable, impressionable moments for your child, and make sure they’re excited about that first day of school. Think about the life lessons involved with this piece of news, even if it isn't your first choice. And if it is your first choice, awesome! But it won’t be every year and that is okay. 

I’ll repost each year to remind you.