Books and Words: Tools for Life

I woke up this morning to the news that our dear friend, Jimmy, 23 years old, died last night as a result of Ewing’s Sarcoma, a nasty cancer that takes 50% of those who get it.  Why did Jimmy have to be on the wrong side of the 50%?  What is the sense in a life lost at 23?  How does one survive the loss of a son?  A brother?

ImageI ask these questions in my head to try to make sense of it all…where there is no sense to be made.  I am all questions and no answers.  My heart aches for his family as I cannot even imagine what they are going through realizing the worst fear of any parent.  I wonder if there is any coming back from such pain and loss and sadness.

And the first thing I do by reflex is search for books, articles, blogs, and information out there that might provide some sense of understanding or solace.  Would it help to read about others who have experienced what they are going through?  Are there articles or poetry that I can send along to help?  Is there anything I can read to help me wrap my head around something that is so unbelievable?

And then I write.  I write to friends, my sister, my family.  I text, I e-mail and then I open up my word processor and begin  to process.  Everything I think about seems so trite…it has been said before. And yet I continue to read and write to attempt to make sense out of the senseless.

And then I get a quick FB message from another mutual friend saying that Jimmy’s story of strength and positivity has to be written.  It is so true. It does need to be written. He was amazing.   And before I go and see my friend Karen, Jimmy’s Mom,  I run into the bookstore desperate to find something to hand to her, something with words that might help.  Words on a page that one can respond to without having to consider any other person’s reactions.  A place to safely feel and respond as only you need to respond.

My daughter Emma got close to Jimmy in this past year.  He reached out to her and at first she just didn’t know what she could offer Jimmy until she read a book by John Green called, The Fault in Our Stars.  It is a book about kids with cancer in a support group who work together to figure out the meaning of life and death through love and friendship.

After reading this book, Emma told me  that never before had she understood why other people with cancer would reach out to her.  It always made her feel uncomfortable and as if she had nothing to offer.  Emma had leukemia when she was three.  Four and half years later, 6 months from being declared cured, she relapsed.  Cancer was part of her life for much of her childhood.  And not until she read that book did she even begin to understand how she might help others.

“He gets me”, she exclaimed of author John Green.   “He understands the language of cancer and what it feels like to be different”.  This book changed her life and encouraged her to reach back to Jimmy, realizing that she had understanding to offer and just how powerful that is.  They became fast friends, having “crazy cancer” in common and wrote to each other frequently on Facebook.  She awaited his Care Page updates with great anticipation and tried to visit him whenever she was home from school. He gave her the gift of understanding right back.  They connected and for her that connection, although too brief, meant the world to her.

Reading and writing are essential tools to function in this life.

Books are places to go to find others who are feeling what you are feeling; a place to engage in empathy and sympathy, grief, anger, happiness, joy, success, failure, triumphs, beauty, sorrow, loss, laughter, inspiration, motivation, creativity, and to attempt to make sense of what it means to be a human being and what it means to live this life in a way that matters, that has meaning; an attempt to find words where there are none.  A place where we belong in a world that often seems so disconnected.  A place to grow.

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Because ultimately I believe we all want to be a part of something bigger in this life, be it an idea, a community, a philosophy, a friendship and books and words help us into those larger spaces and beyond ourselves.

Be Peaceful Jimmy.

You are missed and loved by so many.

Miss-Interpretations of The Common Core and Teaching Writing: Dumbing Down with Ridiculous Rules, Mortifying Myths and Loquacious Lies

I am just home after meeting with some very talented and knowledgeable 6th grade teachers.  Our goal, to discuss the Common Core standards and get a feel for where they were in planning for their upcoming insurgence.

Part of the discussion was that in writing a persuasive piece of writing that the use of “I” is forbidden.  I asked by whom it was forbidden and they both looked at me like, “everyone” knows this.  And in walks the infamous “They” that makes these rules.  Who is the “they” in this arena?  And while you can find that in certain places the use of “I” is frowned upon it is not in others.  What about the fact that some of the best persuasive pieces ever written have a very capital and strong sense of I!! 

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For instance, if you read through my blog entries, how would you classify (for lack of a better word) what kind of writing it is?  What box would you put it in? Persuasive?  Argument?  Narrative? Informational?  Fiction?  Non-Fiction? Opinion?  Or is it a brand new genre called blogging? Or are there strands of each and all of these?

Or is it just ranting from a girl who lives in the grey areas of life navigating through a world of black and white…forever bumping into the boundaries set by others; hard and fast rules that become the letter of the law lacking any theory to back it up.

I envision it as writing my own newspaper column each week.  Where would that fit in?

I see it as a place where I gather my thoughts, opinions, and ideas and then attempt to support them with the thoughts and ideas and opinions of others.  Sometimes they are simply ideas of my own that I attempt to connect to begin to make sense of what I am thinking about. I write for the surprise that Donald Murray always wrote about.   Does this change what “kind” of writing I am writing on each and every attempt?  Or does it even matter what “kind” of writing is if my readers are reading it and it is making them think and wonder and respond?

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Donald Murray

And why do we insist on creating “new” kinds of writing that only exist in the world of school?  Have you ever seen or read a book report in the “real” world?  What about the whopper of a 5-paragraph essay?  When is the last time your boss came to you and said you need to write up a 5-paragraph essay, due on my desk by Monday?  NO, you have not because the idea of 5 paragraphs is another myth created in the world of education in an attempt to dumb down the process of writing.

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These teachers showed me a template for a persuasive (yes 5 paragraphs in this one too) where the students could essentially fill in the blanks and create a piece of writing that would fulfill the requirements of the Common Core Standards.  I have to SHOUT out here that I really don’t believe these are the intentions behind the CCSS.  This narrow thinking goes back to what Don Graves speaks about as teaching writing in terms of painting by number.  All of the writing in these mythical genres look the same, feels the same, reads the same.  BORING!!!  BUT, as the teachers respond, if we do this then all of the standards will be met and we will be able to point out specifically in different colored pens which parts fulfill which standard.  This leaves teachers in an impossible stance.  They have to choose whether or not to do what they are told or to teach what they know is good writing.  Wouldn’t you think they would be the same thing?

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Donald Graves

Our car is making a horrible noise.  (Using a story/narrative strand here to make my point)  There is a screeching sound that just makes your ears quiver when you turn the wheel.  We need to take it to the mechanic to get it fixed.  When it arrives he will listen to it, diagnose it and make the necessary changes.  Imagine another world, say the world where school meets auto repair and instead of relying on the mechanic there is a checklist that says he must add some simile, a bit of metaphor as well as a heave dose of dialogue to fix and complete this engine repair.  When done he can return it to us with all the things he can check off the list, but still with a broken car.

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Taking the person OUT of the process only creates nonsensical ridiculous and completely absurd moves.  There is NO sense in it and yet this is exactly the response I am seeing to the CCSS.   It is about coverage and covering one’s ass, if I may be so blunt…but who cares if your ass is covered if you are turning out broken down cars and students?  Taking the writer, the “I” out of the process is not going to create confident writers who know and understand when and where to use a writerly move if they have never had the opportunity as writers to make those decisions.  (Using compare and contrast to drive my point home)

I do not start writing thinking; I will use metaphor, simile and dialogue in this piece.  I start out with an idea and then as I write there are opportunities where these moves may or may not be useful to make my writing what I envision it to be.  I may even remove my car metaphor before this piece is formally posted on my blog.  The point it that these decisions are made my ME, the writer, so that I can create something that makes sense and that will engage my readers (hopefully) and allow them to think about something in a way that maybe they had not thought about it before.

My daughter sent me a link the other day about some middle schoolers involved in inquiry projects and created controlled experiment and then wrote it up and submitted it to various scientific journals to share their findings.  Many of the journals, while they praised the work of the students and it’s originality were not open to accepting the work of these student because their report started with “Once upon a time”, in other words it did not follow the “rules” of the scientific genre.

And yet, you can see here on this link to TED that the work of these students was eventually published and is now one of the most read scientific reports on the Internet. http://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_amy_o_toole_science_is_for_everyone_kids_included.html

And here is a link to the actual paper that was published. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/12/18/rsbl.2010.1056.full

So why are so many people reading this and watching this TED talk?  I would argue (making this an argument piece now!) that they are reading it and listening to it because it is original and interesting and shows us what our kids CAN do if given the opportunity.

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So what are we doing?  In our efforts to do what is “right” we are forgetting to think about how kids learn, why kids learn and why they don’t.  Why are kids so totally removed from their own educations, their own thinking, their processes of discovery and wonder and curiosity?  Why?  Why?  Because that is exactly what we are asking of them.  To fill in the blank, not to think about what they are writing, check it off the list and move onto the next genre.  And the beat goes on…

Photo Credits: BLG Consulting Group, communicationissuccess.blogspot.com, http://unhmagazine.unh.edu, UNH Alumni, http://theclimatescepticsparty.blogspot.com/

Nothing In Common: Boutiques and Big Boxes

I just spent four days working in a school district out in Plainfield, Illinois and after getting sideswiped by the blizzard Nemo on my way there and delayed on the way home by President Obama’s departure from Chicago at  the same time as mine, it was a successful trip.  Of course my travel woes are another blog and story all together!!  And yet, are they?

As I was driving from Chicago to the Joliet, Plainfield area in search of my first school to visit I realized as I looked out the car window that although I was in Illinois I really could have been just about anywhere in America.  On my left, I see a Target, and on my right a Home Depot.  Lines and lines of chains from Dunkin Donuts to Burger King stood proudly next to their big box neighbors.  And it got me thinking about the goal of so many schools and districts; heck the ENTIRE nation right now is fixated and obsessed with having everything in “common”.  Common language, common expectations, common outcomes, a Common Core and the list goes on. And so I ask myself, what is so great about everything being the same?

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When I travel I seek out what is different.   Where can I find some little restaurant, café or shop that I have never been to before?  Where is there something new I can try in terms of experience, food, or even atmosphere that will provide me with some insight as to what makes this town or city or place tick?  How do people make their livings?  What kinds of homes do they live in?  Where are the tracks and what is on each side of those tracks?  I enter these new places in the same way that I enter each classroom that I visit.  What is different here?  What do these students have to offer and what will I learn about them and how they work in the small amount of time I have to work with them?

My contacts and colleagues in Plainfield are two young dynamic women who brought me back to their district after a one -day workshop on writing in October to do some follow-up demonstration lessons in classrooms k-8.  Before I arrived they asked me to send them some lesson plans for each day.  And so I sat with the list of classrooms and the schedule before me and realized that I probably had not actually written a “real” lesson plan since I was an intern over 25 years ago.  There was a bit of me that actually panicked and began making things up, but I knew in my heart that even if I took the time to write these plans that they would change.  They would change based on the “read” of the students, where they were, what they knew and where we could go.  And so I had to figure out how to send them something open and flexible but concrete as well.

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And so I determined a list of my favorite mentor texts that I would be using and then a bullet list of possible teaching points for each text.  I explained that I walked into classrooms with these possibilities in my head, but that I never really knew what I would be teaching before I actually started teaching.  I realize how uncomfortable this makes so many people, but for me there really is no other way.   Don’t get me wrong, there is a plan in my head, but before I begin to implement that plan I am responding to those students I am working with.  My plan is a back up because ultimately I am there to teach the students, not the material.  In fact when I focus solely on content I am removed from those I am teaching: lost in what it is I think I am “supposed” to be teaching…when in reality I am ALWAYS teaching the students.   And so “what” I will be teaching  depends on those I am teaching.  In this way I almost teach in a “choose your own adventure” kind of method.  If this, then that, but again I never know until I am there.

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And so I enter with a bag full of books that I know and love, stapled paper (books), markers and an open mind.  That is it?  Yes.  That is it.  I quickly try to connect with the students, perhaps telling them something personal about me and then hear bits and pieces about them.  As I am listening to them I get a sense of where they are and which book might work with them.  Then I reach into my bag and the decision is made.

When I am in this mode of listening I realize that the possibilities are endless and so my role is to focus in on one or two or maybe even three different noticings that the students are making and ask them to talk about what they noticed and why they think the author has made such a move.  If they do not notice then I begin by noticing something and ask that they then look for this same thing as I read on.  I love these kinds of encounters with students.  I am looking and listening intently for what is different in their thinking and what they notice.

After reading the book, A Stranger in the Woods by Sams and Stoick, one student notices that the animals are talking.  Together we name this craft,  personification as well as a couple of other crafts used by this author. I set the students free with a “book” made out of 4 sheets of paper stapled together and markers and to begin writing this book on anything of their choosing.  I ask that before they leave the carpet that they first tell me what it is they plan on writing about and one kind of craft that they were planning on trying.  As students revealed their plans, new plans formed in the minds of others.  Taking this time allows for each student to leave the group with purpose and to get right to work.

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One student in a second grade classroom decided to write a book about snakes and  he was going to attempt to use strong verbs.  As I approached his table I could see his book filled with colorful illustrations and great details as he worked with purpose.  When I kneeled beside him I asked if he would talk about and read what he had written.  He read with great inflection and voice and then came this incredible verb, “lurking”.  I asked him how he came up with that word and he began to tell me that he loved snakes, that he was in fact, obsessed with snakes and that because he read so much about snakes he knows that lurking is what snakes do!  He then ran off to his book box to find many different books on snakes.  He poured through them showing me his favorite parts.  This was unique and different than what anyone else was doing in the class and celebrating this writer’s moves is what I am all about.  I asked that he read it to the class after telling everyone where he got his ideas and what kind of book he was writing about snakes.  He talked about how he used the word lurking because another author had used it.  I confirmed his smart writerly move talking about how all writers borrow from other authors.   I focused on what he was doing and what he thought was important.  This is teaching in my highest self.  This is where I find energy.  This is where I long to always be.  In the moment with a child as he or she identifies what it is they are working on and just what he or she is doing as a learner and how it is or is not working.  I am always moving towards, “Getting kids to “reveal” what they know in order to discover where they might go.”  Johnston, Choice Words.

And dare I even say that in these moments I feel a sense of synergy that I also find in my yoga practices.  It is that moment of being in the “zone” where I can see things clearly and instinctively know where to go with each child that I work with.  This does not happen all of the time, but when it does it is beautiful.  It feels incredibly whole and complete and it has absolutely nothing in common with any other interactions I have with any other student.  It is DIFFERENT.  It is not the same and so I have to wonder in our quest for sameness, in our desire for consistency are we not losing the individual processes, identities and the creative thinking of each individual?

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In my debriefs with the teachers after the demonstration lessons I am always surprised by what it is they ask and comment about.  And after a recent rereading of Peter Johnston’s, Choice Words, I realize that so much of my teaching is defined in this book.  The language we use and the responsive teaching is what I am always aiming for.  And if you have not read this book then I encourage you to add it to your list of must-reads.  It is essential for teaching our kids how to be independent agents in their own learning.

And so I left the same way I came in passing Best Buy and Lowe’s, asking myself, are we forgetting what makes life interesting?  Are we aware that in our efforts to be the next Wal-mart that we are losing our downtowns and our small businesses?  I am fortunate to live in a town that still has a downtown and I love walking through the shops and knowing and talking with those working in the shops.  There is something wonderful about knowing people and seeing what is new and different that you would not find in a Target.  And yet, it is a fight to keep our downtowns open because the big box stores are more affordable.  But in the end, can we afford to lose what has yet to be discovered in each child in the name of what is simply common, consistent and so very much the same?  Or am I just a boutique kind of teacher trying to survive in a big box world?

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The Things We Carry

Zachary,  came home from high school one day with three poems chosen by his English teacher to “figure out”.  The assignment was to decide what “kinds” of poems they were and to look further to figure out what “literary devices” were used.

He came to me.  “Mom what kinds of poems are these?”

And the teacher in me responds to his question with a question.

“Well, what kinds of poems are you learning about?”

“None.”

“Well, haven’t you been looking at different kinds of poems in class and identifying them and what makes that what they are?”

“No.  MOM, we were just given these poems and told to find the literary devices.  This is what I have to do.  Can you just tell me?”

And so I look at the poems and instantly realize that even for me, these poems could fall into several categories.  So I tell him I am not sure.  Again I ask to see the poetry and begin to slowly look at them with him one at a time while asking him questions about what he notices in terms of how the poem is written, thus a way to discover “literary devices”.  In my head I am wondering, as well, just what this teacher is asking for and in this process I am removed from the poetry myself in an effort to “please” the teacher.  I too have fallen into school mode right alongside Zachary.

“That is NOT what the teacher wants Mom.  She just wants me to know what kinds of poems these are and what devices are used.  Mom, she doesn’t teach.  She just gives us assignments.”

“Well, what kinds of “literary devices” have you  looked at in other poetry or forms of writing?”

“None Mom, can you just help me get this done?”

“Well, how are you supposed to know if nobody every showed you.  Let me help you with this…”

If you are a parent then you know that teaching your own children is akin to trying to grocery shop with a group of young goats in tow.  Oil and water I say.

He stomps off  to spark notes and google to try to figure out what I cannot tell him and what he does not know because there has been no “model” in terms of what to look for.  These beautiful poems are reduced down to a hunt and peck on the internet in an attempt to figure out and “do” whatever it is the teacher has asked him to do.  There is no meaning.  There is no connection.  There is only the sense that he wants to get this done and done quickly and hopefully, somehow in the process he has figured out whatever it is the teacher is asking for at the same time.

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Pushing my extreme frustration aside, I reflect on this conversation and realize his teacher is not modeling for him.  That the missing piece is and may always be that we are not “showing” our students what it is we are looking for.    In my work with teachers I often hear about how students are just not “getting it” and in this statement is a sense of blame.  They are frustrated with the students because they don’t know what they already know and the blame game begins. And yet, if nobody has ever taught or shown then how is the student supposed to know?  As an educator of students of all ages from kindergarten to adults, if a student is not understanding I have to ask myself what is my responsibility in all of this?

When a student is not understanding I have to stop and ask myself,

  1. What is it that they do not understand and why?
  2. What is it that I have not “shown”?
  3. Is there another way that I could model this for them?

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And although it sounds simple, it can transform your teaching.  This “in the moment” reflection allows us to connect with our students and to consider what they are learning from their point of view.  In doing this we begin to form a connection with our students and view them not as the object of blame, but as a human being to connect with, to teach, to show, to model for.  And once this connection has been made it lays the groundwork for further teaching.  These connections can also reach across the classroom as we identify models in others that are in the classroom as well.  Modeling is about “noticing” and naming what it is that we notice.  In this our students can then see that they too can notice and name.

Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart, under my arm, I enter Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I am greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands.  I receive the confection’s love, knowing it will never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

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I settle into the comfy rocker and take a brief time to reconnect as they tell me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices ring all around me as they share their latest “sound” words, onomatopoeia  the craft we worked on last time I was in.    Three little girls get closer, asking about the pink necklace I am wearing, twirling it in their hands and marveling at its sparkle.

Taking this time to reconnect with these kids is a critical part of the teaching process.  It only takes a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions show them I am interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and ideally trust and can then move into our writing time together.

I read aloud, knowing that I want to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with.  I stop and write some examples on the white board:

tip-tapping

song-singing

finger-snapping

We talk about these words and wonder why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identify that it makes it into one word, makes the reader say the word more quickly and creates rhythm.

We then brainstorm a name for these words and the list consists of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It is democratically decided that DASH-ing words describe them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  Next, I ask them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

I first check in with Morgan, who seems to be struggling because she is not writing.  Her hands are poised under her chin and her page remains blank.  I sit to talk with her.  I am wondering what is keeping her from writing.  I ask her questions, but she just sits and looks up.  Finally I ask if she just needs some time to which she responds, “Yea.”  I leave and tell her I will check back with her.  In my mind I am wondering if I am copping out because it was a flat and uninteresting conversation.  I secretly hope that my decision to leave her and trust her is one that will work, but I never really know.  What I do know is that was I was doing was not moving her along and so I make the choice to let her work on her own.

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I move over to Nick, who also seems to be staring off into space.  I ask him how he is doing.  He responds, “I don’t know what to write.”   In my head I am asking, what does he not understand?  After a brief conversation I realize he does not understand what I had just modeled and that he needs further modeling.  I am not upset that he is not working, I am curious about why he is not.  I ask myself what is missing for him and what can I do to help this young writer to move forward?  What else can I model for him?  Is there another way in?   I lead him back over to the white board and we leaf through the book again looking at the DASH-ing words.  We finally realize together that he does not know how to start making his own word because it is not clear that the first word is often an object, a noun.  And so I model another example asking him to name an object.  He says pencil and I ask what a pencil might do.  He responds that it writes.  We work together and make it into pencil-scribbling because he liked that better than pencil-writing.

For others the playful word combinations take on a life of their own.  Some kids come up with what we call Double DASH-ing Words” such as tweet-tweet-tweeting.  Others begin lists and when I check back in with Morgan I realize that what was missing for her in that moment was think time.  (phew!) She shares this poem with the class, telling us that she chose to write a poem because the book was like a poem.

Swish-swash

Slush-sliding

Icicles-banging

Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

Wow!  I just love the image of the long white world…

We all reconvened back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.

I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a strong model of what is expected of them and in many instances, more modeling to help them move along in their writing.

In my work with these first graders and all of the students and teachers I work with as an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I ooze passion for words and I do this on purpose.  I talk about what I read, write and wonder.  I show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life. I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me.  It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my ipad.   Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me.  They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them.  It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.

When students see that we, as their teachers are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day.  When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school.  And they begin to consider theirs as well.  We model every day with our words, out behaviors and even what we carry.

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“There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds, and I am constantly thinking of new ways to open up those worlds, modeling at every step, whether that shows in what I carry with me, the conversations I have, I am the walking, talking lover of words and my students know this.

What do your students know about you and what do you model every day ?