In My Brain // 10

This Thanksgiving has been a quiet one at home, spent tying up loose ends and getting caught up on work projects. Here are some of the things that have been in occupying my brain space lately:

Fargo // We don't watch a lot of TV, so we're pretty selective about what we get into. The writing, the acting, and the cinematography for Fargo are all incredible. Like proper English teachers, we watch an episode and then read the AV Club review afterward. We're finishing up the first season this weekend, and can't wait to start the second. 

On Pandering // Claire Vaye Watkins' essay really resonated with me. Maybe I'll finagle a way to bring it into a class discussion one of these days.

Limetown // I've convinced enough students and staff to join me on this podcast adventure. It's like the X-Files meets Serial.

Linda Holmes' Interview with Trevor Noah // The Daily Show continues to evolve, and I remain excited to be along for the ride. This interview is excellent.

Crying At Work When Work Is a Room Full Of Teenagers

I was this close to simply calling it in. I needed to stay at home and getting through some of the things, to make sure I was taking care of myself.

What I really needed was a mental health day.

Instead I did the thing where in the morning I told myself:

OKAY. It's happening. Just go.

I wore black pants and a black sweater and black shoes because that's the level of coordination my brain could summon. I wore a big necklace to pretend that I tried.

I dropped the coffee maker and spilled mushy wet grounds all over the floor. The crash awoke my husband, and I shouted up the stairs, "It's fine! I'm sorry! Go back to sleep!" Just this had me fighting back tears.

I moved throughout the first few hours at school, hoping nothing would trigger a meltdown today. And hoping nobody could tell that any. little. thing. might put me right on the other side.

I tried to make my eyes smile, like Tyra taught me.

It's a big whopping performance, a few times a day, this gig. The audience walks in and you're on. The whole time, regardless of the lesson. You're the teacher. You're the grown-up.

Days like this one are rare for me, thankfully.
But still. I'm right on the edge of mental and emotional chaos at all moments. Something trivial will happen and boom, it'll be over.

For me it was, "What are we doing today?"

Tears. I just couldn't.

In front of the tough-kid 12th graders, who most days let me know: Ummyeahwe'regoodthanks, and now they all looked me while I stood there and lost it a little bit.

I vented-slash-apologized. I told them I was embarrassed but that I knew this was coming today. That I'm totally okay, big-picture-wise, I'm just wiped-out and a large series of small failures have culminated in this moment. This tiny pressure-explosion is, I'm sorry, happening now.

I owned it. I had to.
I said to them, I'd way rather reach this point in the privacy of my own bathroom, but hey. I guess our class is called Being Human, and some days, this is what that looks like.

Not optimal.

But. It's okay to not be okay.

Our health teacher shared that wisdom with me once, and it stuck.
It's okay to not be okay. I'm glad she's around to tell that to our students, too.

I'm awkwardly standing there. What now?

And they own it, too.
They all said something like: Dude, we so get that.
And: Here, do you want this brownie?

Also: Your waterproof eyeliner is great.

I got their eyes and ears. And a hug.

And after a pause and a deep breath and a lingering uncertainty.
One student said, I want to talk about this passage on page 147. At which point everyone opened up their books and discussed and discussed and forgave my minimal input.

And later, I saw multiple emails saying, Seriously, I feel like that basically every day.
And before lunch, some flowers:

And this pumpkin with my face drawn on it:

Pretty accurate.

It says a lot about a community when your most vulnerable self is met with support.
When at your worst, you feel totally safe.
When a room full of teenagers is the least intimidating space.

When everyone cares about, yes, but also cares for, one another.

When a day like this leaves me with gratitude.
Above all the other feelings.

The Feedback Loop

Schools are closed on Veterans' Day. Still, I set an alarm, packed my bag, and rode my bike across town to meet a few awesome colleagues. It's the end of the first quarter, and a massive grading session was in order.

Armed with an almond croissant and the wifi password, I opened my laptop to a single window with only the necessary tabs. I spent a few (too many -- ironic) minutes selecting an appropriate focus/concentration/study Spotify playlist. I kept my phone mostly away. I buckled all the way down.

It wasn't long before I opened a few more tabs.

The original assignment description.
The rubric.
The unit plan.

But I wasn't distracted. It's just that I thought of so many new things as I read their work.
Hmm, this part of the instructions needs tweaking.
Yikes, that needs to be added to the rubric.
Let me add that to the unit notes.
Oh hey, these students executed this thing better than I even intended. I'll make that part of the project description in the first place.

The grading. The reflections. The adjustments. The planning.
It happens all at once because it has to.

It's a feedback loop. The output feeds the input feeds the output feeds everything.

I assign a Reflection for major assignments.
For this project, I asked students about their outcomes, their process, what worked, what they would do differently, how they feel about all of the things.

I also asked this question:

This is my first time teaching [this] unit and assigning [this] project. What advice do you have for me if I decide to teach it again? (I promise I do not take this personally, and truly value your opinions.)

And I do.
Their experience with this thing I made for them. It matters a lot to me.

The pair who had the best time, loves their project, and basically wants to do it again?  I'm overjoyed.
A terrific student who had a miserable time and suggests I never assign this again? Kills me.

The Reflection is about agency.
In writing it, students take ownership of the things they controlled.
How they worked. What they made. What happened.

And then. When asked.
Agency becomes affecting change for the things they could not control.
What I assigned. What the expectations were.

And it feeds back.

Reading their Reflections gives me agency, too.
In asking students how things could be done differently to improve their learning experience, I am tasking myself with taking that advice.
I am believing that their input is the most valuable feedback I can receive.

The learning is, after all, theirs.

I'm also learning how to be more attuned to indirect feedback.
When students aren't asked. Or don't tell.

When parts of an assignment are misunderstood, and the outcome is convoluted: I should have cleared things up.
When quiz grades are low but class discussions are informed and engaging: something's wrong with the questions I'm asking.
When the connections I thought were obvious are mostly absent: I should have been more explicit.

Teaching is a special gig. You get as many do-overs as you want.

And the learning is yours, too.

Photos from Chapterhouse Cafe, a wonderful coffee shop and grading space

Rule To Live By // 03

He always proves that he knows me better than I give him credit for.

For my birthday, my husband gifted me this print:

It's beautifully illustrated by a letterer/designer I admire. I need to find the perfect spot to hang it.

It's also a quote I love. 

My mind connects it to the Kurt Vonnegut reading we chose for our wedding last year.

I'm grateful that I've made up my mind.
And I get to be pretty dang happy these days.

Not long ago, a dear friend asked me what my superpower is.
"What are you better at than most people in the world?"

"Finding happiness," I replied.

It's a weird superpower. I'm pretty sure it's inherited from my mom, whose freakish optimism exceeds all human expectations.

I mean. I still feel all of the things.
And am sometimes overcome with anger.sadness.guilt.exhaustion.self-doubt.anxiety. like everyone else.

But mostly, I can find the bright side.
It's usually a question of how full my glass is.

A bright outlook is easy, I guess,
for the generally kickass hand I've been dealt.

And I'm not sure what there is to do about that,
except share.

So I try.

Gratitude is the starting place. 
More and more I realize that it's the biggest of all the feelings.

EduCon 2.8 // January 29-31, 2016

I want to tell you about EduCon. It weirdly changed my life.

EduCon is how I found SLA (and later how SLA found me). It's one of the reasons I didn't leave teaching the 38th time I almost quit.

The first time I came, a few years ago, I had never heard of EduCon, or of SLA, and barely of Philadelphia, to be honest. I happily tagged along with a colleague from the Writing Project with zero expectations.

It was January of my sixth year. I had worked enough to know progress existed, and seen enough to feel defeated and deflated. Burnout was a legitimate threat.

I had no idea how badly I needed a refreshing perspective about this thing that I do.

Unlike any conference I had been to previously, EduCon was hosted in an ordinary-seeming high school.
It appeared to be run entirely by the students.
The place was filled with people who cared about learning. I didn't see any vendors.

All of the sessions were conversations, where many voices were heard and participants were encouraged to connect and discuss and bring in their own experiences.
Socializing and networking were encouraged and facilitated. I met so many wonderful educators from all over the world.

I got to see inspiring classrooms in action. I pocketed about 800 ideas to take home.

We talked about real issues facing schools and classrooms. Every conversation was one I didn't know I'd been craving.

I mostly walked around and exclaimed, "YES! THIS!"
For two and a half glorious days.

I went back to my own teaching world feeling rejuvenated and excited to continue the conversations with the educators in my building and online with the folks I'd met in Philly.

Now. I had no idea I'd ever end up at SLA, or that I'd find myself a co-chair of EduCon.

But life is freaking nuts, y'all.

And I genuinely want to invite anyone reading this to join us.
Come to EduCon.
Be a part of the conversations.
Take the experience with you into your own pocket of education.

Our modest little unconference will take place this upcoming January, conveniently timed between the three-day MLK weekend and the Superbowl.

Register to join us.

And, better yet, propose a conversation for the weekend.

And I can talk about what an incredible experience it can be way, way more, if you'd like.
And I can answer all of your questions.
Please do reach out.

Will we see you there?

All photos from my Instagram, many EduCon moons ago :)

In My Brain // 09

Queen Of Earth // I saw this film this week (on a school night, y'all) and I can't stop thinking about it. The depth reached in this character study is incredible. I can't help but think of how my students would devour it and analyze the heck out of it. Check out the trailer.

Why Pronouns Matter // I love teaching grammar. (Honest. It's oddly thrilling for me.) I might order this to use for some added flavor in lessons.

14 Psychological Tricks Everyone Should Know // We're fascinating creatures.

Flair // I'm happily convinced that a comeback is realistic.

Heart Eyes // Charley Harper

My dear friend, Kristin, whose aesthetic sensibilities are always spot-on, recently taught me about the artist, Charley Harper. I know I'm way late to this party, but I can't stop scrolling through his works.

I'm especially taken with his "Animal Kingdom" series. He called his style "minimal realism." I love how simple colors, shapes, and textures result in such stylized pieces. Especially because this all came about before Adobe Illustrator forced artists to break things down that way.

I want all of the prints.

This one's my personal favorite:

Year 10. Let's go.

This September marks an incredibly gentle start to my tenth year.

The academic calendar is full of blocked-out closings; Jewish holidays plus the Pope's visit to Philadelphia allow for fewer than a dozen teaching days. A three day weekend, followed by a four-day weekend, followed by a five-day weekend.

The school gods are letting me ease back in for this one. In the previous nine years this has been far from the case.

Year number ten. School number three. The relief of not feeling quite so new anymore.

At this time last year I was expending all of my energy, and digging deep into the reserves, to keep my head above water. And I'd be lying if I said I was succeeding before, like, February.

But now. I spent most of last week giving attention and care to my students, making sure my advisees are set up for a great 11th grade year. Navigating rosters, adding and dropping courses, setting up internships, checking in on all of the feelings.

It was hectic yet peaceful. An I've-got-this kind of busy.

We have some rockstar new teachers at our school this year, and I'm finding myself very aware of their ... um ... eager apprehension.

That feeling isn't very distant in my mind. It wasn't so long ago that my eyes were darting confusedly around the room, that I had no idea what we were talking about or voting on during staff meetings, and I was filling notebook pages with questions to ask later.

I got to have some PD time with the new teachers before school started. I was glad to convey to them: If I can survive the madness of my story, then you're already eight steps ahead, and you've totally got this.

I spoke the mantra that helped me at least three times.

When you're new you have no idea how much is actually on your plate. You're swimming through a creek, which feels like doggie-paddling across the Pacific. Everything is hard, the small stuff is in your way, and even when you're doing it right it doesn't quite feel successful.

Year 10 so far reveals a comfort in the chaos. A calm in the constant running. I'm nervous about some of the new challenges I'm taking on, but ready to prove to myself that I won't screw them up. Because I've already survived, I have in the recesses of my mind an understanding that I'm okay.

So yeah. Here goes. Let's do this.

The First Back-To-School Nightmare

Last night I had my first teacher nightmare of the school year. 

I spent the entire dream holding my best I-will-wait-until-it's-quiet staredown, and I never got it. 

I stood there looking into the distance of my extremely long and narrow classroom (which is long and narrow in real life, but was exponentially so in the dream) and realized I couldn't even see into its distance; it probably packed 200 students into the class -- oh gosh I would never learn their names. 

At one point I squinted and saw in the vast distance one student get up and physically carry another student out of the room. I couldn't make sense of the situation, since I couldn't even really see those students from how far away I was, and I kept my stoneface and thought to myself, "Bah, I guess I'll figure out who they are and deal with it later." And then I waited some more.

The thing about my fitful sleep is,

I'm about to embark on my tenth year of teaching.

Ummmm, excuse me? What? When did that happen?

When I started I certainly imagined these dreams would be out of my life by now, that I would at this point in my career be sleeping soundly and having dreams where every student submits the assignment on time and gives me compliments about how much they learned while completing it. I would give a proud smile to each student and say warmly and honestly, "Oh, I can't wait to read this!"


This phenomenon is so humbling. Getting the sweats thinking about the first day of school is a weirdly pleasant reminder about this job: there are a lot of unknowns, I'll never learn all there is, I'm only one piece of an impossible monster of a puzzle, and every year is a brand new challenge. 

image source unknown

Classroom Decor Fantasy

In my fantasy teacherlife, there's a decor fairy that comes around every September 1st and delivers a special little monetary allowance for everyone to make their classrooms magical.

I'd spend it in a jiff and cover the walls with these treasures:

Nina Simone by HogArt Design // Let's Color America by Allison Kerek // T.S. Eliot & Coffee by ObviousState // "Science" Chart by Gritty City Goods

Also: Typography Posters For The Classroom

Pretty City // Washington Square


I think my favorite thing about this city is its creative energy.

It's visible everywhere. In signs. In businesses. The historic sites. In the architecture. The colors. The homes. The people and the things they've made.

I can't get enough.

Recently at Good Karma Cafe I enjoyed an almond milk latte, a few hours of uninterrupted curriculum planning, and then a walk around the few neighboring blocks.

Eyes open. Take in the details.



Design Shout-Out // The Philly 10K

Just a few days ago I said out loud, "I like running, I just kind of hate races."

I ran the Philly 10K this morning, and I totally retract that statement. Selfishly, it combined so many things from which I derive pleasure and appreciation. 

These things are partially running-related.

They are mostly design-related.

Beginning with that lovely logo.

THE COURSE. An urban course is my favorite. I can ride my bike to the start, and enjoy a short ride home afterward. The streets shut down for the morning and I get to experience familiar neighborhoods in a new way. There's so much to look at, people come out to cheer, and it's perfectly suited for my semi-ADD brain.

I especially love the website's course map, featuring beautiful images of the city blocks that are covered on race day.

THE BEFORE & AFTER. Instead of an overblown race expo, there was a Bibs and Beers Pickup Party in Headhouse Square, featuring delicious food trucks and really excellent swag. It was like a completely chilled out running farmer's market. After the race, too, there was a beer garden, some Shake Shack custard, some free Saxby's coffee, and other treats that I actually wanted. People were hanging out on South Street enjoying a terrific summer Sunday.

THE SWAG. I never buy event merchandise, and often end up giving away the stiff, ill-fitting free t-shirts that come with most race registrations. I blurted out a good "Heck yeah!," then, when I saw all of these terrific designs printed on soft, nicely-fitting shirts. 

And I bought one (guess which), and am cheerfully wearing it right now.

Also, instead of medals, runners received this absolutely beautiful hand-drawn, hand-screened map of the course, which I plan to hang up in my classroom.

It was made by the talented folks at Eyes Habit.

What a delightful way to close out the summer running season. I'm already excited for next year and planning to peer pressure all of my friends into joining me.

Collaboration and Leadership and Comfort Zones

I work in an environment that is incredibly collaborative. Leadership is shared because everyone plays a role -- or eight different roles -- in making our school work.

Collaboration is the air we breathe, and leadership is distributed.

And it is both the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of my work here.

It's what's best, I know -- for all of us, for our students, for the bigger picture. It also pushes my comfort zones.

I only now realized this. That collaboration and leadership challenge me.

I'm surprised because an environment like this is what I always wanted, so desperately, in my teaching career. And I know that it is at the center of what's making me grow and learn more than I ever have before.

Not but.
It's definitely an adjustment.

I also know that teaching doesn't necessarily operate this way. That in too many places, teachers stay in their classrooms, with their students, following the directives from above, carrying out the lessons and curriculum they planned mostly by themselves.

At SLA, though, I almost never work alone. Every day, I am surrounded by second sets of eyes. And sounding boards. And teammates.

And truly, teammates. We're all on the same side.

It's all part of the design. We work the same way we want our students to learn.

And they do.

And slowly, I'm encouraged and invited to lead. To step out of my comfort zone. With the help and input of my colleagues, to expand my own role.

It's been a curve, for sure. I'm learning so much from the educators around me. They are my mentors and my leaders.  They inspire me to be a better teacher every day.

My students do that, too.

I'm learning about myself, too. About what control means to me and what my own insecurities are. How they come out when I didn't even know they were in there. My tendencies and traits. And how I affect the dynamics of a group.

I'll be better for all of it.

It's a push that's essential to growth.

You can only go so far toting only your own perspective.

I imagine a lof of this extends for other adults in other professions.

Although I've never been a different professional.

The other day my friends were talking about workplaces and the layouts of their offices. And I thought, "Huh. I share my office with hundreds of teenagers who think it's actually their office. How funny."

Heart Eyes // Ayah Bdeir

Pretty regularly I learn about someone whom I admire from afar and want to tell everyone about. 

Ayah Bdeir wants to solve problems. 
She is the founder and CEO of littleBits, which are little electronic modules that snap together using magnets. Like Legos. Engineering circuit blocks.

Watch her Ted Talk for a better overview.

The pieces are modular. And buildable. With endless possible outcomes.

Which means. Well, it means a lot of big things.

Too often complex tools are unattainable. Or just out of reach.
Because learning curves are real. And overwhelmingly steep.

littleBits makes electronic programming accessible.

Bdeir's objective remains to use her tools to encourage creativity. And play.

To put her tools in the hands of anyone who wants to make.
Engineers. Non-engineers. Designers. Students. Children. Anyone.

She gets it.

It's not just that there aren't a ton of women in engineering. Or that entrepreneurs are creating startups that provide interesting solutions.

It's the big picture. littleBits is open source, meaning anyone can download the information and build upon it. Anyone can access the tools. And collaboration is encouraged.

It's about democratizing the space. And reimagining the technical landscape.

She's an inventor empowering other inventors. An architect. An engineer. A maker. An artist. A designer. A teacher.

She believes in being thoughtful and deliberate. In breaking down boundaries. In the potential for innovation and collaboration. In changing things by working together.

All of that, I respect. And look up to.
I'll be excited for where she goes next.

Process // Right Field Farm

When I was approached about creating a logo for Right Field Farm, I was completely charmed. A young flower farm run by a beautiful family? Is that a dreamy graphic design project or what?

I started by sharing some emails and questionnaires with the client so that I could get a feel for their background and goals. As a budding business, Right Field Farm is in the process of updating their website and developing their brand. I knew they wanted a simple logo that could be easily printed and replicated from home, so we decided to stick to black-and-white graphics.

In the initial concepts stage, I like to provide a variety of ideas that the client can pick apart to help refine the direction of the overall piece. When we determine which graphics, letters, shapes, sizes, images, colors, etc. stand out, we can move forward with a tighter selection.

I thought I'd show you some of my favorite rejects from the initial concepts:

Right Field Farm wanted an updated and polished look that also highlighted the fact that they are a small, family farm in a small town near Annapolis, Maryland. The logo design should reflect the local and homegrown feel while still being sophisticated and have some room to grow with the business.

Here is the final logo. We love the cow; she's whimsical and spunky and farmy-but-not-too-farmy.

This was truly a fun project to work on, and it was a delight going through the design process with such an awesome client. I can't wait to see what grows on Right Field Farm!

In My Brain // 08

I'm struggling to lift the sun-filled haze that is Summer Brain and return to healthy routines and adult responsibility. The school year is upon us, friends! These pieces of the Internet might inspire some normalcy.

Noisli // An app that generates background noise for focus or relaxation. Yes.

Pep Talk Generator // There will be a lot of Monday mornings ahead.

Mean Girls Pencils // For the high-school mindset, obvi.

LunchBots // I can't rock the PB&J anymore. These bento boxes make me fantasize about grown-up school lunch.

Pretty City // Fitler Square

I stuff my laptop and camera into my bike basket and head off to explore a new neighborhood.

Typical summer weekday.

When school is not in session and I can explore a different balance between work and play, I find new-to-me spots and call them home for a few hours. 

A few days ago I rode in the direction of Fitler Square. I parked at Rival Bros. Coffee, where the Loretta Lynn playlist was righteous and the outdoor table I scored was perfect for puppy and baby watching. I cleaned up a unit plan until I had overstayed my WiFi welcome. 

Then my grandma tastes got the best of me and I took a long walk and snapped photos of little houses and their flower boxes.

This is my idea of a reward for a little bit of work. This I could do all day.


And now I'd like to introduce you to my new favorite house in Philadelphia. Hanging Plant Heaven. 



My future friends live here, I know it.