Thursday, September 14, 2017

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes...

Just one reason I'm grateful to my students' parents,
delicious muffins...
I've long held the belief that politicians should spend some time in schools, to see what we are doing on a daily basis before making laws and mandates that make our job even harder. After talking to friends this week in nearby districts, and some in states far away, I would like to amend that request to ask parents to visit our schools as well. Maybe sub in a class or two. Pause, reflect. I've been blessed in my twenty+ years with amazing parents of my students. My friends have not been so lucky of late. Some general guidelines that would be beneficial include:

Remember that you are always being watched. Your kids look to you to learn who they should become. The way you talk about their teachers matter.

Come to us first. We can absolutely screw up, we're human. But let's approach this relationship as the partnership it is. Talking about us on social media, in the stands while you watch your kids in sports, or even just at a local restaurant, can sabotage our important partnership.

We love your kid, but we love the rest of the kids in the class too. I get it, I'm a parent. When I sent Luke to kindergarten, I wanted to pull aside his amazing teacher, Mrs. Coleman, and explain all that was wonderful about Luke, but all that worried me too. I stopped myself. Mrs. Coleman had nineteen other kids in that class. Each one of them was so important to their families, but needed to be equally important to Mrs. Coleman. As much as I'd love to give your child individualized attention all day, every day, I need to be a teacher to all of the students.

I do have a life outside of the classroom. My husband will laugh if he reads this, I work far too much. That being said, I go to my boys' sporting events. I occasionally go out on a date with my husband. I do answer parent emails when I'm at home, but that isn't a requirement. If your child's teacher does, great. If they don't, also great. They've balanced the work/home life better than I have.

Make your child responsible for their own learning. Long ago I decided to let my kids fail. I know, nice, right? I'd already taught for seven years by the time that Luke entered Kindergarten. I made that 100 day project in first grade all on him. If they forgot to study for a test, I didn't remind them. Lunches, band instruments, homework all left at home, I didn't get it. I figured failing at the lower grades would be good lessons. Not the end of the world, no huge lecture, just natural consequences. (Side note, the book Love and Logic taught me the majority of this.) So far, we're doing ok. My boys are not at an A+ average or anything, but they do well. They know that their grades are theirs, not mine. My value as a parent does not rest in their GPA. I try not to own their successes and failures in the classroom just as I don't make their successes and failures in sports about me. This is their life, let them figure it out while you are still their to help them pick up the pieces. 

It is truly ok if you don't know everything going on at school. Since moving to middle school from elementary school last year, I've talked to so many parents about this. There is less communication from the teachers, from the school. I asked why they (the parents) were struggling with that. I had an eighth grader at the time, so I knew what they were talking about, but I was curious. A lot was they were worried, they wanted to be as involved in their child's schooling as they had been. As much as I applaud their desire to be a part of their child's life, I pointed out that we are doing this in stages. A step back from the involvement in middle school, another big step back in high school, because we want them to be independent in just a few years to go to college. Hugs, parents of middle school kids. You've got this! 

And remember, we want to help you. If you are struggling at home with your kid, talk to us. If you are confused about what's going on at school, send us an email. I am so grateful for the parents I've worked with over the years. To say I've felt like part of their families would be an understatement. These people have my back, and always have. I appreciate them more than they know. A strong parent-teacher relationship is vital, and I wish everyone got to have that experience. 

Sending love to all parents and teachers as we begin the 2017-2018 school year. Parents, we are grateful every time you send that awesome email, at just the right time, to send thanks for no reason at all. You have no idea what that can do for our mood. Teachers, you are more important than ever. Reach out to the parents for help when needed. Remember why you dove into this profession in the first place. You are changing our world, one student at a time. 

And, on a selfish note, sending out thanks not only to all the parents of my current and former students - the ones who send me great messages, the ones who send me muffins and Starbucks, the ones who support me at home, the ones who smile and tell me they appreciate me - you all make my days, and years, so much easier. 

To the teachers my boys have had, thanks. You've helped me tremendously by pushing them, never letting up, and making them the people they are meant to be. So glad you've been on this journey with us.

To everyone, let's make this our best year yet. I firmly believe in public education. It is the way forward, it is the great equalizer. Let's move forward together and see what we can accomplish. I am certain this will be my best year yet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Cover Reveal: Most Valuable Players by Phil Bildner

There are few authors I love as much as Phil Bildner. Phil was a teacher, so he gets it. He gets how hard we work. He gets how much a note from an author can mean to a student. He gets what a positive portrayal of classroom life can mean in his books. Yep. He gets it. So I already love him for that, but then he writes this Rip & Red series and I loved it. I mean really loved it. Loved Mr. Acevado, loved the friendship between these kids. Loved that the books are just realistic fiction, hanging out at school, on your teams, and with your friends kind of books. The kind of books that each one of my students can see themselves in. 

That would be enough reason to love Phil, right?

But then, my students started reading the books. And loving them. And they'd tweet Phil and he'd always, always, tweet them right back. We tweeted out one day that we were learning about point of view. Phil sent me a Voxer message on my lunch hour explaining how he thought about point of view as he wrote so I could share it with them. 


And then two boys I had in fifth grade (two years ago) tweeted him that they couldn't wait for book two, Rookie of the Year. He sent it to them via my email. 


They read it and told him what they thought. This year, when they entered my room as seventh graders, they (Spencer and Logan) were looking for books on the first day of school. Spenc said, "Hey, Mrs. S., what about that cool author. You know, Phil? What has he written lately?" Two years later, he still matters to these kids.

There, that would surely be enough, right? 

But then, there's my son, Liam. Who struggled a bit to find his reading groove. Who read A Whole New Ballgame in my fifth grade class and immediately declared it his favorite book. Who read the first copy of Rookie of the Year when I brought it home from NCTE in 2015. In the summer of 2016 I saw Phil's cover reveal for Tournament of Champions. I showed Liam and he flipped. He couldn't wait to read it. He tweeted Phil and Phil sent him the manuscript. Seriously? Who does that? Phil made Liam (and Spencer, and Logan, and countless other kids) feel special. Though miles away, through text messages and tweets, and -- most importantly -- his books, Phil connects with kids. So for those reasons, and a million more, I'm thrilled to share the cover of the next book in the Rip & Red series with you today...Most Valuable Players. Look for this one in the spring of 2018, which my students will tell you is way too far away. With that, let me share some words from Phil. 

Phil: Sometimes the universe speaks to us in wondrous ways.

When Mary Van Akin, the rockstar publicity manager at Macmillan, emailed to tell me the cover reveal for the fourth book in the Rip & Red series would be on Katherine Sokolowski's, Read, Write, Reflect blog, I did a little happy dance around my living room. 

In the email, Mary asked me to send Katherine a few paragraphs introducing the latest installment. I told her I would the next morning, even though I hadn't given much (any) thought into what I was going to say. Fortunately, a perfectly timed Facebook message -- within minutes of Mary's email -- from Peggy Schuh took care of that. Peggy's a retired public middle school math teacher who now mentors new teachers in North Indianapolis.

As a 
mother and mentor for beginning teachers
 I want to thank you for your Rip and Red series. I have teachers in 
lementary schools and 
​different m
chools. I've spoken with the librarians at each of the schools
 and as a result
 they have ordered the series. 

year old 
​-- ​
who is quite the basketball player
​ --​
 absolutely loved the books. He's wondering if there will be a 
​ four​
 where we find out what kind of dog Rip gets. His vote is for a 
ound since he has one! 

Mason does play
play all the time when 
​he's ​
 and we think your depiction of that and the game strategy is right on!  


 the Rip & Red series has been the highlight of my writ​ing career. It's an indescribable feeling knowing that these characters have touched so many lives.

​Book four in the series is called MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS. It will be out next May. Today, I'm thrilled to share the cover with you.

Oh, in the Rip & Red books, Rip's real name is Mason. When he plays basketball, he loves doing the play-by-play. When I first read that Facebook message, I thought Peggy was referring to Rip, but she was actually referring to her grandchild, Mason.

Thanks for letting me reveal the cover to the fourth book, Phil! I can't wait to show it to my seventh graders today. And friends, if you haven't experienced the Rip & Red series, remedy immediately. Much love for these books coming from my students, my son, and me. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sixteen Years Later...

For the past few years I've taught a short research unit on the events on 9/11/01 with my students. Realizing several years ago that my current class, at the time, had only been a year old, it dawned on my that the date didn't mean the same for them as it did for me. Coupling that with the notion that some had never talked to their parents about where they had been that day, we began to learn about it together. 

This year's group of seventh graders just wrapped up their inquiry today. We read 14 Cows for America together and they worked on a blog around the topic of 9/11. Some wrote fiction stories taking place then, some wrote informational pieces, others shared poetry. I wrote my own poem, thinking back on these faces that I looked into on the day that shook the world.

Here's my poem from today. Sending peace and love to you all. 

The Day That Changed My World...

The day that changed my world 
When I realized that evil does,
Lurk within the hearts of men.

The day that would make many children
Say goodbye to parents.
Families forever altered.
So much loss,
So much heartache.
Senseless violence.

And yet,
Goodness triumphed.

Heroes prevailed.

They could be found in

Heroes can truly be found everywhere,
If we know where to look for them.

Sixteen years ago,
I stood in front of a classroom.
Nine year old children,
Staring back at me.
I had gone to the door,
Heard the whispered news,
Images filling my mind,
Horror clutching my heart.

But, like teachers everywhere,
I shoved those images aside.
Knowing that my role was one of calming.
To ensure that life,
For now,
Went on as normal for these kids.

I taught math, social studies, science, and reading.
I hugged kids as they fought with their friends.
I told stories from our picture books.
I smiled,

And yet,
Inside my brain was racing.
Inside my heart hurt.
Inside my stomach ached.

I watched my beautiful students,
And wondered about what world
I was sending them home to at 3:05pm.

I remained calm,
While outside my classroom,
I knew the world had irrevocably changed.
I had changed too,

We all did.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Small Celebrations

Celebrate - writing outside with my students...
Today I had several moments that made me stop, reflect, and feel gratitude seep into my pores. My friend, Ruth Ayres, often does a weekly celebration round up on Saturdays. But, knowing Ruth, she'd say to celebrate whenever you felt moved to. Thus, today's post. I haven't had a lot of time to blog of late, so when the urge strikes, I'm diving in. 

Today I celebrated...

Walking two dogs, separately because it is easier, is good for me and super frustrating at the same time. Thirty minutes of moving every morning is awesome. Thirty minutes when I need to be rushing to swim in Champaign, or get ready for school, can be panic inducing. However, moments like this make me grateful to be where I am.

Seventh Grade Readers
I know I need to soak this in. Teaching the same kids I taught before for two years in a row is a blessing I don't ignore. I already know these kids. I know their quirks. I know what they've liked in the past. But still, some are just now hitting their groove as readers. Today one told me they read 100 pages yesterday because they just couldn't stop. Another kid told me the book I gave her, Salt to the Sea, was so good she was recommending it to her mom. Two boys told me that All American Boys was the most important book they had ever read. Another kid turned when he heard them say that and disagreed, saying the March graphic novel trilogy was. And two boys have been quietly recommending the book Fallout to my entire first hour. 

Picture Books
This year I decided to try Jillian Heise's idea for reading a picture book every single day of our school year in all three classes. It is hard, but I hoped it would be worth it. Today I had one class remind me that we didn't read one yesterday because we didn't switch classes due to Benchmarking. They had talked as a class and decided I needed to "make that one up" at some point this week. Another class came in with kids already talking about the picture book I posted on Instagram last night, Come With Me. Was I going to read it today? (Yes) Did I need Kleenex or a hug before reading. (Nope, I was ok, but it was beautiful.) 

Seventh Grade Discussions
Man, these kids are wicked smart. I love not planning a discussion, knowing I want to introduce them to some topic related to 9/11, show them the video/article/ book and see where they go. These kids have insights that I'd argue most adults don't have. And then, the bell rings and they don't want to leave. Today I had to remind several kids in my last class that we could talk tomorrow, that it was dismissal. Absolutely the best.

Cross Country
I love this sport. I've loved running on my own over the years, but the stuff this sport teaches captures my heart. Liam had a meet today. He's been really striving to run his two miles in less than 20 minutes. Not easy for him, but he's tried. So far he's had one race at 20:46, one at 20:47. So close, but no. Today I saw him nearing the finish line. I looked at the clock. He could make it, but needed to hustle. We cheered, other parents cheered, strangers cheered, and he did it! 19:44. So awesome. His pride in that time was the best. On the way home he shared that he had a new goal, below 19, and he was gunning for it this Saturday. Awesome. 

My kids can be a pain at times, of course, but what I truly like about them getting older is enjoying the adults they are becoming. Whether it was standing in the kitchen as we made dinner tonight talking to Luke about high school and dances, or talking to Liam about school and how he "accidentally" stayed up an hour later last night to read the last 100 pages so he could start Patina by Jason Reynolds today, my heart just grew. Watching Luke shout out to Chris that he had taken the best (and largest) ribs for himself, Chris yell back from the kitchen, while Luke and Liam burst out laughing at the table, I was filled to the brim. Gratitude.

And, shout out to the lady that taught me to look for the everyday celebrations. Ruth has a new book coming out and I cannot wait to read it! (Check it out HERE) She's looking at our writers and how you can reach them all - especially ones coming from a place of trauma. This will be a book you don't want to miss. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Living Up to Your Calling

It's the start of the school year, which coincides with the start of Cross Country season for my sons. Tonight, after practice, I took them both to a local restaurant for dinner. Chris was still at work and I just didn't feel like cooking. Over dinner we talked about favorite and least favorite classes, what classes they would have to work the hardest in this year, fears that were on their hearts, things they were excited for, and on, and on. My oldest said something interesting. In reflecting on Cross Country versus football, he said you really have to be in Cross Country because you love it, there will be no attention or accolades that you might get in football. He knows of what he speaks, he was on the football team for three years and enjoyed it. I sat and thought about that comment. 

I have two kids in this sport. Luke, in high school, currently runs about 50 miles a week. He has pushed his body to the limit. He eats a ton of food each day, packs his lunch religiously so he has healthy food at school. He studies running, thinks about it non-stop. Not to say football players don't work hard, they absolutely do. However, in Cross Country there will not be crowds cheering you on. It is a quiet sport. Parents and family members attend the meets, but no one else. You do have to be there for you and for the love of what you do. That being said, it has been the best thing for my boys, without question.

Liam has had a similar experience. His milage in seventh grade is far less than Luke's. His time is much higher. Unlike his brother, he does not win races, but is in the back of the pack. Honestly, I'm impressed he keeps at it. And yet, tonight he told me how he's been eating healthier to try and improve his time. How he wants to join the high school's team because he's seen how much Luke enjoys it. He's shared his dreams of improving his times. He talked about his goals. He too does this for himself, for the joy of being a part of this team, but with the knowledge that there won't be an award at the finish line. Instead he has the knowledge that he did just a bit better than last time.

Luke was right in his comment at dinner, and Liam had nodded in agreement. I was filled with gratitude once again for this sport they love, one that has taught them so much in two years. It reminded me of this quote from Penny Kittle from her book, The Greatest Catch

“When you’re teaching you’re going to see people who cut corners, don’t work as hard as they should, or just complain all the time about everything. I believe you’ve got to do what’s right, every single day of your life, even if the rest of the crowd isn’t. Teaching is about honor and goodness and mercy. It really is. And no one will be watching you most of the time. You either live up to the calling of this profession or you don’t, and most likely no one will ever know but you. But it matters because the kids are counting on you.”

So here's to those of us, doing our thing, for the sole reason that we know it is what's right. Not for the cheers, but because we can't imagine doing anything else. The start of the school year, of the sports season, is hard. It's exhausting work. But man alive, the satisfaction of a job well done is worth it. Knowing in your heart you reached your limit, you lay it all on the line, it is the best feeling. And whether it is making a PR in Cross Country, scoring that touchdown in football, or finding that kid and making a connection, there is no better feeling in the whole world. Wishing you all a year filled with joy and reaching for the stars. You are worth it. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Tomorrow begins my twenty-second year in education, my nineteenth year in public schools, my second year in middle school. I've taught more students than I can count. I've worked for seven principals, had countless colleagues. There have been highs and lows, but I am so glad that back in 1995 I decided to turn towards education and away from law school. My bank account might be richer, but my heart would not.

Through my students, I have become immortal. Long after I am gone, they will remember me. Hopefully I will make a positive impact that lasts. What I never forget, however, is that they give me far more than I've given them. 

They've showed me what true resilience looks like. My students are braver than any adults I know. They've been dealt some pretty crappy hands, but their dogged persistence makes me sit back in awe.

My students have a kindness that knows no depths. While the world becries their selfishness, I have seen their selflessness. Kids whispering to me that they want to buy a classmate school supplies, donating to a cause they believe in, sending me cards when I have lost a loved one, bringing me flowers and doling out hugs when my dog passed. 

From Kindergarten to middle school, these kids cheer me up, make me feel better when I'm sick, and become obsessed with favorite books right along with me. They make going to work each and every day something that I look forward to.

And on the days where I feel like I've failed, want to drop my head on my desk and cry, wonder where I've gone wrong; they are always the bright spot to remind me that I've done more right than wrong. That the only path forward is one of dogged persistence. And I get up, and try again. 

In twenty-two years I've learned over 2000 names, 2000 stories. My heart has been broken and healed, time and time again. Tomorrow I'll wake up, head into school, hug some former kids, and meet my new school family. I cannot wait. 

It's going to be a great year.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Wrapping Up My Summer of "No..."

I said at the outset that this was my summer of saying "no"... No to extra conferences, no to things that took me away from my family, no to extra work.

That worked out, and didn't. I only attended one conference, a Scholastic Summit in Chicago. It was fabulous as I reconnected with friends I rarely get to see and presented to a group of wonderful educators. So I traveled less for sure.

And yet, I did add stuff to my ever growing plate. I decided to help create a community wide reading program for my town this October. I wrote 13,000 words towards something that I wasn't sure what it would become. It turned out it was just a reflection, but still, it took time. I shuttled my kids to an ever growing number of practices, games, and friends' houses. 

What I noticed, however, is that while I did say "no" to most that came my way, and "yes" to a select few, this summer was good for me. I'm horrible with balance. When I'm reading a lot, I write very little. When I cook a lot, cleaning takes a back seat. In the quiet time of this summer when I got a chance to reflect, I realize that my balance in work versus life has been off for some time. I set out to reclaim that balance.

Teaching is an interesting job. The more you pour into it, the more that you need to do. I love my job. I often joke that it isn't just a job, it's my hobby as well. I love to read children's books, to plan lessons, to write - I selected my profession well. Yet this summer, I began to wonder, there is more to me than teaching, right? I feared I had lost myself in my love of what I do.

Finding my balance again is tricky. I can easily slip into the mindset that I'm not reading enough children's / YA books, that I'm not blogging enough, that I need to write a book, find more conference, go work in my classroom. No matter how much I do, there is still more. This isn't to say that I'm going to stop doing the above either, I'm just going to let it stop consuming me.

In the new found spaces I found time to hang out with friends more, go out with Chris on more dates, listen to the sounds of my boys playing video games float up from the basement while I danced out to Hozier's Work Song as I cook dinner. And I'm going to read romance novels. Lots and lots of them, because I forgot how much I like them. (Great article on romance novels here.)

I'm following in the steps of my new found heroine, Maxine Waters, and reclaiming my time. Because I have a funny feeling that at the end of my days, hopefully many years from now, this is the stuff that will matter for me - these faces above, my friends, time spent with my family and pets, long lazy afternoons surrounded with my home and books I adore. I'm saying yes to more of all of this during this school year. 

And friends, you find your time too. Our students are beautiful. We can love them and have our own lives as well.

Reclaim your time. 
Reclaim what you love. 
Reclaim you.

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