slice of life · Uncategorized · writing · writing journal

First Writer’s Notebook

Front Cover of the Notebook

Over the weekend, we attended a blueberry festival at the farm where we pick pumpkins, apples, and blueberries annually. While there were plenty of berries to pick, one of the best parts of the festival happened away from the blueberry bushes. It happened amongst the craft vendors.

Isabelle insisted on browsing the craft vendors’ wares. I felt myself get frustrated since Isabelle, like many kids her age, usually wants to blow her money on junk. She’s been saving her money and had $24 to spend. And that made me fearful she was going to buy $24 worth of junk! (Yes, I do have the final say. Like I said no to her buying stuffed animals. However, I can’t say no to everything!)

The second vendor’s tent she walked into was selling polymer clay-covered notebooks. They weren’t cheap: $12 for small ones and $24 for large ones. Isabelle insisted she wanted one. Even though it was a notebook, I felt my heart sink a little bit. Was this going to be an overpriced scribbling pad?

“Let’s come back after we pick raspberries and blackberries.”

Isabelle held me to that promise. Even though she visited other vendors’ tents, she bought a small notebook since “that will mean I’ll still have $12 left.” (Imagine how pleased I was with that declaration!)

Lo and behold, Isabelle has written in her new writer’s notebook the past two days. In fact, she’s pretty excited about writing in it. She’s decided to keep it in the car so she has something to do while we’re driving places. Of course, that makes looking up unfamiliar words and decent penmanship challenging, but I think she’s off to a great start. Take a look:


Perhaps I should’ve looked inside the notebook to make sure it would be appropriate (in terms of line size) for a rising second grader. But then again, she wants to write, so perhaps I should continue to have a hands-off approach on this one!

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slice of life · swimming

The Problem with Participation Awards

I wanted to give a couple of my students a second recognition award during the school year when I was a classroom teacher. I was met with resistance. I was asked if all of the students in my classroom had received an award. The answer was no. I was (politely) told everyone needed to receive an award before anyone could win a second recognition award. I seethed. Basically, I was being told that the kids who were working the hardest shouldn’t be recognized for their diligence until everyone’s ego was stoked, whether they deserved it or not. That didn’t sit well with me back then. Years later, I still don’t understand that line of thinking.


Seeing as being on the swim team for the first time IS a big accomplishment, I encouraged Isabelle to hang the medal up in her room. She didn’t want to. I slid it over the headboard of her bed. After I did, she told me, “It looks good there.”

Over the weekend, Isabelle, Marc, and I drove home from her swim banquet. Marc and I remarked about how proud we were of Isabelle for trying a new sport, being on a team for the first time, and doing her personal best each and every time she swam in a meet this summer. However, there wasn’t much coming at us from the backseat.

After some small talk, I said, “You should be so proud of yourself, Isabelle. Are you proud of yourself?”

“I didn’t win a medal or a trophy,” she replied flatly.

“What do you mean? You got a medal.”

Isabelle quickly pointed out that everyone who was new to the swim team got those medals. (She was correct.) “I didn’t win a trophy like P.J.,” she said referring to a boy her age who received two trophies.

“You’re right,” I replied. “You didn’t win any trophies.”

“Why not?” she inquired.

I explained how those trophies were for kids who finished in first, second, or third place in a swim race. I explained that even though she shaved time off every time she raced, she didn’t finish in the top three in any of her races. I explained that not everyone can win the races.

Isabelle didn’t seem to care about the things I said. She was disappointed she didn’t go home with something three-dimensional and shiny.

Here’s the thing. I AM MORE THAN OKAY that Isabelle didn’t walk away with a participation trophy. Here’s are a few reasons why:

  1. Isabelle saw right through the first-year recognition medal she won. She knew it wasn’t a real award. Maybe receiving a participation trophy would’ve helped in the moment, but she would’ve seen through anything unattached to a top-three finish.
  2. I was a terrible athlete in middle school. (Let’s be honest, I never excelled at anything besides Pilates and swimming.) I was on the “B Team” for both field hockey and softball. As a result, I never received an award because I wasn’t any good at either sport. Perhaps if I had received a phony award, I would’ve kept participating instead of finding something I could excel at. Instead, I tried other things, like drama, student government, and newspaper. Eventually, I found something I enjoyed doing AND was good at. I’m sure the coaching staff was happy when I was no longer on their teams too!
  3. Isabelle has a fire in her belly ever since Saturday night. She never talked about winning all season. Now, she’s determined to win a race next year, which means she’s going to practice more this summer and before next year.

Isabelle loves to swim, which is why I signed her up for swim team. Somehow, I think not receiving a participation trophy was a good thing. You see, because I knew she wasn’t going to come in a ranking position at any of the meets, I kept her focused on doing her personal best each time. She bought into that all season long. And that matters! But now that she knows there are trophies, I am confident she will work towards individual progress and contributing to the team’s overall score next swim season.

We shall find out how this shakes out next summer!

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slice of life · technology

Surf City Water Tower

What did our parents do — in the days before smart phones to provide instant gratification — when we wanted something? Did they plug their ears while listening to us cry? Ignore us? Tell us to toughen up? Or maybe it was some combination of all of those things…

Last week, we vacationed in Topsail, NC with my cousins. Despite seven people — two of whom were under two — living in the same house for a week, it was a relaxing vacation. We ate in most nights, but decided to head to dinner the final night we were in Topsail so we wouldn’t have a clean-up job after dinner since we had a lot of packing ahead of us.

On the way out of the restaurant, Ari noticed the island’s old water tower. He was captivated by it. He said, “Tower!” over and over on the drive home that night.

The next morning, Ari called “Tower!” many times. On our way off the island, we pointed the water tower out to him and said, “Say, ‘bye-bye, Tower’.”

“Bye, Tower!” he called as we drove over the swing bridge off of Topsail Island.

That should’ve been it… but it wasn’t. He called out for the water tower several times on Sunday.

“Remember, we said good-bye to the Tower when we left Topsail,” I reminded him.

“Bye, Tower,” he repeated sadly.

By yesterday afternoon, Ari continued to call out for the Tower. That’s when I googled “Surf City Water Tower” on my phone. Not only did multiple images of the water tower come up, but there were even two videos! I showed the photos to Ari. The images made him smile with delight. Then, I showed him the videos. He watched them with complete contentedness.

Today’s Tuesday. Now Ari is grabbing for my phone saying “Tower! Tower! Tower!” The last thing I want to do is look at photos and watch videos of some old water tower. However, doing just that is my consequence for using my smart phone in this way in the first place.

picture books · slice of life · vocabulary development


Ari has been going through a mommy phase for the past week and a half. He calls my name what seems like 1,000 times a day. Over the weekend, we drove to a state park about 30 minutes from our home. I sat in the third row of the minivan, which meant (since he’s still rear-facing) Ari was looking at me for the entire drive. Despite being face to face, he kept saying “Mommy… Mommy… Mommy…” over and over. I’ll be honest, it was annoying.

Later in the day, I came across the image of a little girl, who looks a touch older than Ari, crying in a still photograph. She needs to be consoled, but that’s not happening. Like so many people, this photo shattered my heart since — unlike Ari who is going through a stage — she doesn’t feel secure. No one to hug her and promise her everything will be okay. Because it isn’t. None of this is okay. Separating innocent children from their parent(s) is cruel.

I had the privilege of spending Father’s Day with my parents, husband, and children. Not a moment went by without me realizing how lucky we were to be together.

After we returned home from celebrating Father’s Day at our favorite restaurant, I hopped on the elliptical for a 75-minute workout. I selected “Face the Nation” from my DVR recordings. I found myself feeling ill with every passing moment the Southern border parental separation issue was covered. By the end of “Face the Nation,” I turned on an episode of “The Daily Show” I missed last week just to keep myself from being nauseated.

When I got off of the elliptical, I marched myself down to my home office and opened an old picture book manuscript, WAITING FOR PAPI, that I shopped around to agents throughout 2015 and 2016. WAITING FOR PAPI offered a glimpse into the lives of undocumented children in American society. I wrote it after teaching in a community where some of the students’ fathers were placed in a detention center because they were undocumented. One of the girls (whose father was detained) was supposed to be in my fourth-grade class the following school year. However, she and her family were deported to their native country since her parents were in the United States illegally. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to remove her desk from the classroom when I set up my classroom. I kept the desk to remind me of the unease families without papers feel. These folks live in constant fear of deportation.

The desk stayed in the corner of my classroom. It served as a promise to one day tell her story. However, WAITING FOR PAPI received more rejections than I could count. The personalized rejections stated the subject matter was too mature for young children. (I tried revising as a middle-grade novel, but it wasn’t the form I envisioned for this book.) One agent even told me that no parent would ever buy a book about families being separated. As a result, I stopped trying to convince literary agents how American parents needed this story to help their children understand the lives of others who are not in this country without the necessary papers to live freely and comfortably.

But that was in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, in 2018, the separation of families along our Southern border has become a reality. Unlike many Americans, I’m not shocked that “this is what our country has become.” I saw what was happening in the community where I taught in 2008. I hate to say it, but what’s happening doesn’t shock me.

I began a new document after I finished reading the old manuscript, which — by mid-2016 — was a watered-down version of the story I wanted to tell. I don’t have a law degree so I can’t provide legal assistance to families in need. I don’t live close enough to the Southern Border to do anything concrete. But what I can do is revisit the story of the girl whose desk remained empty in my classroom during the 2008-09 school year. Her story deserves to be told. Once the manuscript is finished, I’ll summon the courage to query it. It is my hope to find an agent  (and a publisher) who believes this story is worthy of being told in a 32-page picture book. Not only do this country’s youngest citizens need a window into the lives of undocumented children, but undocumented children deserve mirror books.

This story has been percolating inside of me for a decade. By the time it ever goes public, Ari will be long past this mommy stage. So for now, I’ll keep writing and will enjoy being adored by my son. I will not allow myself to wish away what many other parents yearn for.


Dahlia Lithwick and Margo Schlanger of Slate compiled an excellent list of ways everyday people can help fight separation at the Southern border. Click here to read it now.

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slice of life

Be the Cool Mom

“Would you like ice cream?” I asked Isabelle as we walked along the River at ArtsFest.

“Yeah, I guess,” she replied.

“You don’t have to have ice cream,” I responded. “Believe me, I’m not going to force you!”

She pondered. A moment later she said, “Yeah, let’s get some.”

We stood on line — holding hands — reading the flavors on the homemade ice cream food truck’s sign. “You know we haven’t eaten lunch yet,” I exclaimed.

“We haven’t,” she giggled.

“What kind of mother lets a kid eat ice cream for lunch?” I asked her.

The man in front of me turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “A cool mom.”

I smiled.

Today I’d be the cool mom. I could be the cool mom for a day, right?

(Note: I did encourage Isabelle eat a “lunch snack” of turkey breast and orange peppers around 2 p.m.!)

accomplishments · slice of life · urban education

Kvelling Over the Graduates

I’ve been kvelling for over a week. Day after day, my former fifth graders (from the final year I taught in Manhattan) have been posting their photographs on Facebook of graduating from college. They’ve graduated from schools like Davidson, Iona, Ithaca, NYU, and SUNY-Albany. Some have graduated magna cum laude. Some are attending graduate school this fall, while others will be working. All of them have made their families (and their former fifth-grade teacher) extraordinarily proud.

If you’ve ever heard me speak about successful writing partnerships, then you might recall the name Tyresha. She was part of the most dynamic writing partnership I ever witnessed as a teacher. Tyresha and her writing partner worked together the entire school year when they were in my class. In fact, they plead their case — mid-year — for why they didn’t think it would be fair for them to have any other writing partner while in my class. I agreed. Not only were they helping each other grow as writers, but if one of them missed school, the other one would turn-key the previous day’s minilesson so I wouldn’t have to do it! (How could I break up that kind of dynamic duo?!??!)

Over the weekend, Tyresha graduated from college with a major in psychology and minors in counseling and marketing. She’s completed multiple poster presentations about mental health and plans to attend graduate school once she hones in on exactly what she wants to do in the field of psychology. The first line of her Facebook post, which included photos from her graduation, began with these words:

I come from a place where people are not supposed to prosper, yet here I am.

Tyresha continued by thanking her parents, family, friends, mentors, peers, and professors who supported and guided her through her educational journey. She expressed a beautiful sentiment, which matched the radiant smile on her face as she stood in her cap and gown for photographs.

However, hard as I tried, I couldn’t get past Tyresha’s first line. Her words pinged around inside of my brain all day. By Sunday evening, I emailed Tyresha to ask her if I could share her words in a blog post (She said I could.) and if I should attribute them to her or leave her anonymous (She wished to be mentioned by name.) in the post.

As a former inner-city classroom teacher, I am troubled by the sentiment Tyresha expressed in her post.


There she was — a college graduate — despite other people’s expectations based on the zip code in which she grew up and the color of her skin.

I cannot imagine feeling as though I was not meant to go to college. I cannot imagine how it must feel to grow up thinking as though people didn’t expect me to reach my potential. I cannot imagine what it must be like to know people wouldn’t be rooting for me to succeed in life. These things were not my feelings growing up in suburban New Jersey, but they are real feelings for many young adults like Tyresha.

No one should grow up feeling as though people are rooting against them. To marginalize someone’s potential because of where they’re from is unfair and just wrong.

Included in Tyresha’s album of college graduation photos was a photograph of her mortarboard, which looked like this:

The message Tyresha donned as she marched across the stage of her college graduation is one that shouldn’t need to be repeated. However, it MUST be repeated. It reminds me of what still needs to be done to help young people in communities like East Harlem, where I taught, so they feel as though people — not just their parents and teachers — want them to flourish. No young adult should reach their college graduation day and feel as though people didn’t want them to cross the finish line. It’s been nearly two days since I read Tyresha’s words. I still find them heartbreaking.

May Tyresha’s words remind each of us of how much more work must be done so all kids — regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, or sexual orientation — feel as though there are many people rooting for them to succeed.

Democracy · slice of life

The Voting Angel on My Shoulder

I peered out of the window in the office where I was conferring with a teacher. The sky was blue on one side and a smudgy dark blue on the other. It was 3:20 p.m. Our debrief was technically over. While there was more to discuss, I was feeling edgy about the impending storms.

“I should get on my way,” I said.

“You should,” she replied. “You have a long drive home and it looks like it’s going to storm — soon.”

I packed up my things, used the bathroom, and walked to my car. The juxtaposition of the sky’s hues alarmed me. I paused before I opened my car door. I heard nothing but the laughter of children on the playground. No thunder.

My focus continued to be on the sky — and the road, of course — on my drive home. I watched the GPS’s mileage lessen as I got closer to home. But I also watched the sky turn a murky blue-gray.

As my car headed east towards Duncannon, I noticed bolts of lightning in the distance. My first thought was please let the rain hold off until I make it across the Juniata River. My second thought was an odd one. Please don’t let the rain start until after I vote.

That’s right. I was first worried about making it across a narrow bridge over the Juniata. My second concern was that I’d make it to the polls in one piece.

I made it across the Juniata unscathed. But moments later, it seemed as though every tree’s blossom was blowing through the air. I heard thunder. I noticed flashes of lightning behind me. Then, the skies opened up. It was POURING as I made my way closer to home.

You still have to go to the polls to vote in the primary, the proverbial angel on my shoulder told me. Involved citizens vote in primaries.

But the devil, so-to-speak, on the other shoulder kept saying, “No one will care that you voted if you get hit by a bolt of lightning on the way out of the polls.”

I gripped my steering wheel and tried to tell the “angel” and the “devil” to shut up.

But I didn’t have to. You see, as I approached home (which was east of where I was working today), it seemed I had beat out the storm. The wind was gusting, but drops weren’t falling. I drove past my street and to the local elementary school where I hustled out of my car to vote.

Our local wardman recognized me. “Thank you for braving the weather to come out to vote.” (Obviously, this was nicer than telling me I was out of my mind for being out in this weather.)

“I hope I can get out before it starts to pour,” I said.

“There’s no line!” he declared.

Of course, there isn’t, I thought. No one, other than the poll workers and a couple of campaign workers, was at the polls. There was literally no one else voting. Do you know why? Not only was the sky ominous, but there was a severe thunderstorm warning and a tornado warning in effect.


Post Primary Voting Selfie (FYI: It’s illegal to take a selfie in the voting booth in Pennsylvania, which is why I took one outside — in the wind.)

Today was a monumental day in Pennsylvania. Our congressional map has been redrawn. As a result, the ruling from the State Supreme Court is an attempt to put an end to gerrymandering so that our congressional map can achieve partisan balance. Fair congressional districts matter and that’s why I braved horrendous weather to vote.



Thankfully, I made it home in one piece. By the time I arrived home, I filled bottles of water, grabbed a lantern, and a wind-up radio, and got ready for the possibility of sheltering in the basement since the tornado warnings were a reality. Thankfully, nothing touched down near our home.

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poetry · slice of life · writing

Poetry Mission, Part Deux

Last week, I declared my intent to help Isabelle like poetry. But, on Thursday night, Ari spent most of the night crying. He required soothing by his one-and-only mommy. By noon, he was diagnosed with double-ear infections. Then, on Saturday, I came down with something and have felt crummy ever since. But despite all of that, I managed to place poems in Isabelle’s snack bag every day and chat a little bit about poetry with her at night.

Despite feeling miserable all day yesterday, I went in search of amusement park poems to share with Isabelle since her teacher informed me Isabelle expressed interest in writing poems about Hersheypark. After an internet search that left me wanting for more, I went to Amy LV’s Poem Farm blog. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed. So I emailed Amy to ask her if she knew of any amusement park poems I could use for inspiration with Isabelle. Not being an avid ride fan, Amy didn’t know of any (which explains why she hasn’t written any!). However, Amy suggested looking at Marla Frazee’s Rollercoaster, which happens to be one of Isabelle’s books since it’s poem-like. Therefore, Isabelle and I studied it together yesterday afternoon. We talked about line breaks and the many reason poets might choose to break lines. Then, we spent about a half-hour looking through various poems on Amy’s Poem Farm website before Mommy needed to lay down.

Even though I still felt awful today, I ventured into Isabelle’s classroom since the next two weeks are filled with consulting commitments and manuscript work. There’s something about being amongst children — in writing workshop — that helps me forget my misery. I find I journey far away from my ailments when I’m sitting on the floor, beside a child, talking about writing.

I conferred with one of Isabelle’s friends first since my daughter was taking awhile to settle in. Therefore, I taught her friend about line breaks and coached her through revising an existing poem by adding line breaks. Next, I went to Isabelle. I discovered she’d written a poem about a ride, Helicopters, she’d taken with Ari over the weekend. The poem read:

I went

on the


with Ari.

We went


I think there was one more line, but I don’t remember it. Whatever it was, wasn’t memorable. I asked Isabelle about why she ended the poem when she did. “I ran out of room on the paper,” she replied.

That’s when I taught her a paper trick she could use anytime so she wouldn’t feel constrained. We visited the paper center and grabbed more paper. I showed her how to tape on a piece so she could write more. Once we made that quick fix, I asked some questions about what she was trying to show. She said it was important for her reader to know that Ari was saying hi to everyone as the ride went in a circle and that she held Ari. I encouraged her — now that she had more paper — to write about those things with precision. (While I wanted to encourage her to start anew, I knew I was skating a thin line between mommy and literacy coach, so I opted to stay a little bit on the side of the mommy role.) I told her to come back to me once she had shown her reader what she was really trying to say.

Towards the end of the workshop, Isabelle found me while I was conferring with another friend. I asked her to wait — and she did. Once I was finished, I found this:

I complemented her on writing longer and reminded her she could do that any time in writing workshop. Then, I noticed what she did by writing about the important parts of the ride: Ari saying hi and holding onto him.

At the end of the workshop, I pulled Isabelle aside and gave her a charge for tomorrow. I talked to her about trying to make the reader feel they’re alongside her at Hersheypark, riding rides with her brother. I encouraged her to pay more attention to the feeling she has when she’s holding her brother on their rides rather than the describing the rides themselves.

I won’t be in next week, but I am hoping her teacher will send home Isabelle’s next attempt so I can see what kinds of poems she writes going forward.

poetry · slice of life

A Poetry Mission

Per Isabelle’s request, I came into her class for writing workshop today. She insisted I come in since “that’s what you do.” I emailed her teacher, found some mutally-convenient dates, and went to Isabelle’s writing workshop for the first time today.

Today was the first day Isabelle’s class began a poetry unit of study. While Isabelle loved rhyming board books as a child, she’s never taken to poetry. Believe me, I’ve tried many different poetry picture books — rhyming and non-rhyming! I even spent April 2015 placing poems, instead of my regular notes, in her preschool lunchbox in honor of National Poetry Month! However, the poetry bug never bit Isabelle and I had bigger fish to fry. (Enough idioms for you?)

Tomorrow’s snack bag poem is “Pinwheels” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

I noticed Isabelle seemed a bit disengaged while I worked with her and two of her friends as they recorded observations about objects during independent writing time. Despite me providing her — and her peers — with a strategy (i.e., What does the object look like, feel like, sound like?) for recording their observations, Isabelle didn’t have much to write. Her observations were surface-level descriptions about color and texture.

A few hours later, I picked Isabelle up from her after-school art class. I chatted with her about writing workshop on the car ride home.

  • I asked her if she was interested in the objects in the bins. (She said she wasn’t.)
  • I asked her if she felt like she had heard enough poems to inspire her own writing. (She said she hadn’t.)
  • I asked her if she’d like me to place a poem in her snack bag every day for the next few weeks while her class studies poetry. (She initially said no, but changed her mind 10 seconds later.)

So now I’m on a mission. A poetry mission, to be exact. My goal is to share some short poems with Isabelle I think she’ll enjoy. I’m not sure if they’ll inspire her to write her own observational poems, but — if nothing else — she’ll have a poetry gift in her snack bag every day for the foreseeable future.

I will return to her classroom next Monday. I’m not sure if she’ll have evolved into a budding poet by then, but I’m on a mission to find out.

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slice of life · writing

The Fifth Night

I’m still awake.


At 11:45 p.m.

I thought about

Waking Lynne.

She *is* just across the hall.

But I don’t want

To disturb her.

(Though I know

She’ll tell me

I should’ve woken her

When I see her

In the morning.)

So here I lay

In bed

Hoping sleep will come


We’ve had

Four productive work days.

The manuscript

Is almost finished.

We are


To work more


This is not the way

I want my time

At Highlights

To end —

With me

Being sick.