Thursday, August 21, 2014

One Chance

You only get one chance to make a first impression.   So true, and never more true than on that momentous occasion that rolls around once a year: Open House, Meet the Teacher, Back-to-School Night… Whatever you call it, you only get one chance.  One chance to lock eyes with that nervous child who doesn’t know you yet and make them feel welcome in this little world you call “our” classroom… 

They are ALL nervous, no matter how they feel about school, because they know WE hold THEIR future in OUR hands.  To a child, a school year is an eternity.  Countless hours looking at YOU, listening to YOU, learning from YOU, being held accountable to YOU… that’s a lot of power YOU and I have.  This is their first chance to gauge us, decide how that’s probably going to go and with what attitude they’re going to approach it.  They’ll base that attitude on our attitude…the atmosphere we set, the way we treat them, the feeling they have as they take this first step into “our” classroom.  You only get one chance to make a first impression.  Make it count.

Here are some ideas, taken straight from what’s going to happen in the little world I call my classroom this evening:

Set the Stage     
Carefully consider the display outside your classroom.  I always have my students from the previous year help me prepare.  Who better to put my new students’ minds at ease about the upcoming school year than those students who have survived a year with me and lived to tell about it?  ;) I've tried several different activities over the years: letters to the new fourth graders, top 10 lists, photo collages, etc. but the last couple of years I’ve used my favorite: the Top 4 Things About 4th Grade.

Who Doesn’t Love a Present?     
The past few years, I’ve set up a small gift on each child’s desk.  Sometimes I use treat bags or boxes from the party aisle at Target that match my polka dot class theme, but this year I found paper cups at Dollar Tree.  Inside, there are a couple of pencils, a few stickers, a Tootsie Roll pop, a homework pass, a bookmark, and a reading poster that I got free from Scholastic with my last class order.  I’ve learned to stay on the lookout for items that will work well for my Back-to-School welcome presents which makes them easy and cheap to put together when the time comes. 

Make It Personal     
The last item in the welcome gift is a letter from me to the student telling about our class and how I feel about being their teacher.  I always make sure to address each letter with the child’s individual name to make it feel more personal.  One day I’d like to be together enough to handwrite these, but for now this will do.  It’s a good way to start forming that one-on-one relationship with the child and to make sure they realize Open House is as much about them as it is about their parents.

Keep Them Busy    
We spend a lot of our time at Open House chatting with parents, as we should.  The problem is while the kids are standing their awkwardly listening, they get more and more nervous and fidgety, which is not the feeling we want them to leave with.  Therefore, make sure to have activities around the room for the kids.  Ideas include:

Teacher Trivia
I reveal the answer on the first day, then have the kids play a similar game where they have to come up with one truth and one lie about themselves.

Online Survey
I used SurveyMonkey to set this up for the first time this year.  I plan to have it pulled up on all four of my classroom computers.  It’s entirely anonymous, and on the first day we’ll look at the results together to get a feel for the personality of our class.

Free Samples
We subscribe to Scholastic News each year and I always order a couple of extras in case I get new students.  I save these extras if they aren’t needed and put them out on a table for students to choose one to take home from Open House.

Interactive Board Display

If you have a Smartboard or Promethean board, don’t just leave it turned off for Open House.  Choose something to display that will catch your students’ attention.  I used to run a Powerpoint of “Frequently Asked Questions” and now that I’ve started using Class Dojo for behavior management, I display our Class Dojo and the kids check out their avatars.  Whatever you choose to display will become a focal point and a conversation starter for students and parents.

Sometimes it feels like I spend as much time (or more) planning for those two hours of Open House as I do for those seven hours of the first day of school, but it’s worth it to see those shy, nervous smiles turn to relieved and excited smiles before my eyes.  Here’s to hoping these tricks will help create some of the same magic in your classroom this week!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Favorite (Summer) Things

What’s not to love about summer?  Warm weather, weekend getaways, sunsets and fireflies, sleeping late, the lake, the river, and the pool, sandals and tank tops, cold drinks and dinner on the patio… I will admit even though I love my job, summer’s end leans more toward bitter than sweet.  Today marks the last official day of my summer; I'm marking it by sharing a list of my favorite things I’ve discovered this summer.

Ben and Jerry’s Salted Caramel Core ice cream
I’m not even going to try to explain how good it is!  You have to taste it.  I started the summer by stretching one of those little pints over three or four nights. Last week, I realized I accidentally finished the whole thing in two nights.  We won’t even discuss the serving size and calorie count…  But it’s worth it!

Novels by Sarah Addison Allen
My friend, Jackie, gets the credit for this find.  I started the summer with The Girl Who Chased the Moon and ended it with Garden Spells.  I’ve found myself suggesting both to friend after friend, trying to explain this unique style of mostly realistic fiction with just a touch of magic.  The author offers a whimsical, refreshing take on easy to read, romantic yet a little mysterious novels.  I highly recommend!

Amazon Prime Music
If you have Amazon Prime and haven’t checked this out, you need to.  It’s a new feature they added a few months ago where you go online and add playlists, and even some albums, to your library for free and then you can play them from your computer or phone just like Pandora, but without the commercials.  Just a few of my playlists are, “50 Great 2000s Country Songs,” “50 Great 90’s Songs,” “Jason Mraz and More,” and “Kelly Clarkson’s Top Songs.” It’s definitely worth checking out!

Wet ‘N Wild Emerald Pointe Season Passes
This one is thanks to my friend, Lisa.  She texted me the day after Thanksgiving and said the waterpark had season passes for half price on a Black Friday Deal.  Sixty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents later I was signed up for a half a dozen days of water slides and the wave pool with her and her sweet kids.  It really was a great deal, complete with free parking and 20% off food in the park.  We’ll be watching out for another great deal this fall!

This one is for my fellow nerds.  This is a game by Merriam-Webster that you can buy in the app store that quizzes you on vocabulary words through ten increasingly difficult levels with four different games on each level.  The first two levels are free, but I was hooked and bought the remaining levels in the car on our way back from the beach.  I was always able to resist a single Candy Crush purchase, but the word game did me in.

Capriz Italian Feast
Speaking of our trip to the beach, Brent and I went to the beach by ourselves for the first time ever this summer. We had a great time hanging by the ocean and of course, eating out.  Our favorite meal was at a place at Broadway at the Beach called Capriz Italian Feast. It wasn’t very fancy but it was DELICIOUS!  It’s all-you-can-eat for $20 per person.  There’s an amazing salad bar with a lot more than salad, and then the servers bring around every Italian dish you can think of, including steak and chicken dishes.  As an added bonus, the sangria is delicious.  It’s going at the top of our must-do list for Myrtle Beach now!

Hart of Dixie
I saved this one for last because I just discovered it, but last week I decided to pick a new series on Netflix and came across Hart of Dixie.  It only took one episode to hook me!  Well-cast, funny yet touching, with an endearing, sassy flair that makes me feel like I’m watching the movie Sweet Home Alabama transformed into several dozen glorious episodes.  Next time you’re looking for a new show, it’s definitely worth a try.   I’m hooked!

I’m trying to figure out which of my new favorite things I can stretch well into fall.  If you’re looking for me this week at night, I’ll probably be laid out on the couch eating Salted Caramel Core ice cream, watching Hart of Dixie.  We all have our vices, right?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Are You Ready?

“Are you ready?”  This time of year, I hear it all the time.  Ready to go back to work, ready to meet my new class, ready for the first day of school…. ready for summer to be over.   We teachers are the recipients of a highly coveted job perk in experiencing this thing we call summer break.  The general public can’t wait to hear how we feel as it draws to a close. 

Sometimes I think we let this sentiment creep too far into our core.  We can’t seem to escape the idea that the end of summer is to be dreaded and NOW is when real life starts kicking us in the butt just like it does everyone else 365 days a year... {Insert evil laugh from the last person who asked, “Are you ready?”}  It’s easy to feel momentary dread, but let’s try not to let it take hold.

Don’t get me wrong; I love summer break and I’m always a little sad to see it end.  But it’s not the only way to LIVE.  We don’t have to spend the other ten months of the year going through the motions, waiting on next summer to roll around, the way too many people go through the motions just waiting to retire.  Every time I start counting down at the end of the school year, “20 more days!” my husband snaps back, “20 more years!” (until retires).  But what about today?  This year?  Now?  There is life to be lived at 22, 42, 62, and 82, just like there is life to be lived in July, September, November, and even those bleak days in February when spring break feels like a distant oasis. 

My husband is doing a good bit of work-related travel in the next 30 days, and it made me wonder if he planned it that way on purpose, to escape cohabitating with the lesson planning, classroom d├ęcor making, paper grading, website updating, number crunching, calendar drafting freak I tend to morph into throughout September.  I will admit when I heard his schedule, I breathed a little sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty working past 9:00 pm, when I should be cuddled up with him on the couch watching TV.  And I’m sure with him gone, I will spend plenty of nights on the clock, ensuring that I would make minimum wage if it was all divided out.  But his physical absence makes me ponder the mental leave I tend to take from our marriage this time of year. 

Your life doesn’t end with the first day of school.  If you have kids, neither should your kids’.  I always emphasize to the parents of the students I teach that homework should not rule their home life.  If it does, I want them to call me and we’ll work something out.  I’m not saying I don’t want them to do their homework; I’m saying I want it done painlessly in an hour or less so they can have the rest of the night to LIVE.  What if I followed my own advice?  I’m not sure it’s realistic for the beginning of school to think that I could spend only an hour at home on school-related activities each night, but it’s a good goal to have in mind to at least create awareness. 

What if we didn’t put away the novels we were actually reading for FUN this summer?  (I feel like I’m in a race against the calendar right now to finish the 400 page novel I started last weekend because if I don’t get it done I won’t know how it ends until Christmas break.)  What if we picked one night a week to leave the school bag AT SCHOOL and focus solely on our families and/or friends?  What if we packed our weekend plans with fun instead of just paper grading and planning for the next week? 

The first couple of years I taught, these “what-ifs” were overwhelming to me.  I felt like if I didn’t devote every moment I could to my classroom, it would fall apart.  As time went on, I found out some days it falls apart no many how many hours you’ve devoted to it, and some of the days you feel the least prepared come off the most flawlessly.  It’s called LIFE and it was waiting there for me to realize that I can’t control every aspect of it.  All I can do is LIVE it…every aspect of it, not just the realm in which I’m called “teacher.”  It’s all those other moments, year-round, morning and night, weekends and afternoons, that make me who I am, the best person I can be- for myself and for those twenty-some kids who call me “Mrs. Jones” from 8 am til 3:00. 

There’s another school year looming just around the corner.  But it’s so much more than summer’s end.  It’s a chance to keep working toward that balance where we learn to truly LIVE.  Are you ready?

Monday, August 4, 2014

You Never Know

I’ve often heard it said that grief has no expiration date.  This summer I’ve found myself realizing that rule also applies to the mourning of people that may never be, not just those who have passed away.  

Five years. That’s how long it’s been since my husband and I decided we were ready to have a baby.  Little did we know it would be so much more complicated than just “deciding.” 

If you’d asked me five years ago where we’d be on this journey today, I’d have quickly given you a couple of different answers, neither of which looks anything like where we are.  My most confident answer would’ve have been that we would have had two children by now and would be living happily ever after.  And I would’ve followed that up with the disclaimer if things didn’t work out that way, of course we would adopt. 

You never know how you’ll handle a situation until you’re in it.  You never know what will feel right until you’ve experienced what wrong feels like.  You never know what God will call you to do (or not call you to do) until you’re faced with asking Him questions you thought you’d never find yourself asking.   Perhaps the biggest lesson in this for me has been those three words: You never know. 

So, if it’s impossible to even know what will be right for you, how could you begin to know what’s right for someone else?  That’s been the next most important lesson for me: Don’t judge. 

Nothing about this journey has been predictable.  Perhaps most unpredictable have been my emotions.  This journey has taken me places I thought I’d never go – bitterness, despair, rage, jealousy, uncertainty, inadequacy…I’ve felt it all.  But throughout it all, there has also been hope.  Unrelenting hope.

I used to think that if I checked off a certain number of months, medications, treatments, Bible studies, home remedies, prayers, conversations, doctors, declarations, birthdays, methods, promises, etc. eventually I would be done with this.  Either it would end up the way I had planned or it wouldn’t, but either way, it would be done.  I never figured out the magic number, but I always felt like it was just over the horizon.  It had to be…if it wasn’t, I’d lose my mind.

I’m finally realizing that's not what this, or life for that matter, is about.  It may never be done, but that’s okay.  It’s not necessary for me to know, or for me to summon the strength for the entire journey on any given day.  It’s only necessary that I do the best I can today.  Some days that’s prettier than others, but that’s okay.  I am human. 

As deeply personal as it’s been, the journey I’ve been on isn’t unique.  We’ve all suffered hardships…situations that didn’t turn out like we expected, pain that we didn’t {want to} know existed, trials that require us to press on when the weight feels like more than we can bear.  It’s part of the human experience.  But so is this hope.  Because even though we’re only human, we’re held by the One who is so much more.  Because of that, we hope. 

You never know… But He does.  And one day we will too.  For now, all we can do is hope…  But somehow, that’s enough.

As for me, I will always have hope.  I will praise You more and more.”  ~Psalm 71:14