Making Birthday Lemonade…Team Fante Style

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Today I welcomed a teenager into my home as the red faced screaming infant that rocked my world thriteen years ago continued on his rough treck into adulthood.  It is a milestone that I have been dreading for some time as the wretched it’s-time-for-a-cell-phone- delimma has been making us both crazy.  See my kid feels like 13 is the appropriate time for cell phone possession, and I feel like the only way I am going to pay each month is if he produces $60 worth of services in this house.  It has not gone well.  We have both raged, cried, talked to a therapist, and in the end come to the following agreement.

1)      He wants a phone…and I know that someday he is going to need a phone

2)      He is not willing or ready to do $60 worth of service per month

3)      We love each other deeply and we are going to work this out

So he has a daily checklist, which gets done about three times a week if a remind him and rarely if I don’t, and there is the promise of a phone when he mature enough to complete his chores without my heckling.  Today, when he woke up, I hugged him super-tight and made him an omelette.  Mike and I took the day off work to take him to the Tiger’s game along with my nephew and a buddy.  He was so sweet about his modest gifts praising me for each one.

“Mom, that was the exact iPod case I wanted.” he commented.  It was the same case he had admired on a friend’s phone which cost me exactly $3.95 on Amazon, a gift card, and a Wii video game all stuffed into a single gift bag which made up his gifts.

And then we were off to the game.  It was a lovely, sunny day and we got there early in time for the White Sox batting practice.  He hung over the wall, glove low, pleading with an outfielder for a ball.

“Come, on man.  It’s my birthday.” he begged.

And a ball flew through the air popping into his mitt.  He ran up to me, “Mom, can you believe it…a ball for my birthday.” No mention of the phone which he never up-wrapped in sight.

And there was so much sweetness, watching his laugh at lunch over chili cheese fries, which I normally never let him eat, throwing peanut shells onto the ground, and give Mike’s friend Dave a running commentary on the ins and out of professional catchers.

As we walked back to the car, I was struck with the joy of today and the mellow pleasure I felt in each moment.  Until we got to where the car was parked and it wasn’t there.  I mean it was nowhere in sight.  Apparently someone had helped themselves while we were at the game, and my newly paid off minivan was gone.

Stunned, I flagged down a police car and called a friend who had been at the game to see if he would give Mike a ride back to our house while the kids and I went to the police station to make the report.  We were there for two hours.  Sitting in the police station, suddenly I realized this was a really big moment, and the way I responded was going to define my son’s 13th birthday for the rest of his life.  Here I had been worried it would be the lack of a cell phone, but instead it was going to be about me and my reaction to this moment.

“Mom, this is a terrible day.  Right?”

Looking into those blue eye that are just like mine, I screwed my courage to the sticking point.

“Son, this is a good day.  It is only a car, and we are all safe and together and happy.”

And so as we sat in the cement garage of the Detroit First Precinct ignored by most of the officers who are too calloused by daily tragedy to even notice us, and we laughed about goofy memories.  Each of us told Elijah the stuff we liked the most about him.  When my husband finally arrived, Mike comforted by telling me that if my car is recovered he is going to tell the police the crooks must have let a possum live in there for a few weeks and that is how it got so dirty.  I wanted to kill him, but I was laughing so hard it hurt.

Then when we got home he dug one of my old purses out of Eden’s toy box. Since my new super cute one was tucked safely in the trunk of our stolen car.

“See hun, you don’t even need a new purse. “

So today my kids learned these lessons:

When you turn 13 you do not get a cell phone…you have to earn it.

And when tragedy strikes it is never dark or scary enough to consume you if your family is there to laugh with you and remind you of what is really important.

And I have to tell you at the end of the day, it was a really, really, really great birthday.  One that none of the Fantes will ever forget.


Letting Go…

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The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
and it looks like I’m the Queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in;
Heaven knows I’ve tried

Don’t let them in,
don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel,
don’t let them know
Well now they know

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore

And so we begin…you and me on the side of my frozen mountain of dreams as I let go.  I am and have always wanted to be the “good girl”.  There is nothing that I like more than making it perfect.  My fantasies revolve around Celveresque dinners where I serve hand rolled meatballs on impeccable china, while my children politely wipe the corners of their mouths and use all the utensils properly.  Or sometimes I envision my classroom where the children are sitting quietly engaged in scientific inquiry as they write down observations in their journals and ask one another meaningful questions.  Or perhaps it is the end of the boot-camp class I used to teach where the students drip with sweat and marvel at my endurance.

In the fall of 2013, I experience an unexpected pay cut of about 15%.  I had known it might be coming. I had even run through a few financial scenarios trying to mentally prepare myself, but the gritty reality was far more challenging than my imagined remedies.  The truth is that I had grown complacent in my job at the college.  I had always talked in generalities of returning to K-12.  In the course I taught, I would even say something like, “Someday when I am working with kids again…”  But every time I thought about the stress of a massive career change, or looked up the starting pay-scale for a step 1 teacher online, I would shutter at how hard that would be, and push my dream way deep down inside myself.  One more year, I would think…just a little more time here and then I can try.  But in the end, it was the pay-cut that would rescue my dream from the risk of becoming a lifelong regret.

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all

When Mike and I stood back and took stock, we realized something…there would never be an easy time to take the additional pay-cut K-12 teaching would require and that our lives were not going to slow down for the next 15 or so years.  And I saw suddenly with clarity there was a way to make it less financially painful…I could teach at classes at the college in addition to teaching school.  There were so many restless night when my anxiety riddled brain tried to imagine the stress of both careers happening simultaneously.  And the question that pounded, thundering and blasting through all of my thoughts, with an unrelenting rhythm, “How could I do them both well modeling best practices, take care of my family, be a wife and still be the “good girl”?

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I’m free!

See to find my way to this new reality there was one dream I had to let go…it was the dream of being perfect while having it all.  It sounds so silly, but even now I feel the physical ache of loss as I type with tears dripping down my nose.  And now there are the exchanges. Instead of being there for my boys before and after school -a typed checklist of chores, instead of preparing fresh dinners- a crock-pot, instead of teaching boot-camp-family workouts.  Instead of week-long vacations to National Parks – a short Groupon trip to Niagara Falls. And yet, there is so much sweetness in living out my dreams it leaves me breathless…

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway!

And driving home last night from Niagara Falls, after two days of sharing dinners and doing every free activity imaginable, my dear sweet husband held my hand and said, “There is no one I would rather be broke with than you.”  He told me gently that no matter what the next decade brings we can pretty much count it including piles of need, so we might as well be sure it includes buckets of joy as well.  I think of last week in my college class when I showed this video and told the students to become a real teacher again, I have had to let go of my image of being perfect so I can show up EVERY day…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAJYk1jOhzk

And herein lays my true super power.  I am not perfect but I am enough.  The past is the past, I let it go and stretch out my arms praying you will find your courage to release your burdens and reach out with me, as together we grasp the sky of a new beginning.


A Triple Fit New Year

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It is one of my favorite days of the year, the Holiday for Goal Setting.  I sit on the floor quietly tucked in a corner of house, my only company a purring orange and cream calico as I  tap away and the rest of my family drinks in the last hour of sleep.  My brain has been brewing a thick storied soup of blog for the last few days as I planned the New Year’s edition of Triple Fit. Yet, as I age I am constantly amazed at the way life twists plans inserting new outcomes and bending turns into our neatly planned agenda of events.   Last night one of those events crept up on me and left me breathless with anticipation of what may come…

It is a Fante mantra…you have to fight the private battles before you win the public victory.  And we train for the coming war at home and together.  The symbol for being triple fit is three interlocking circles, each sphere a representation of body, mind, and spirit.  And for Mike and I, the ultimate goal is for our kids to grow into mentors, leaders, and role models in each of these area. A lofty goal indeed and each day we dutifully dole out the wages required by this kind of commitment.

And so I leave blogging to pay the tolls for raising this family.  Hours have passed, turkey sausage and eggs for breakfast, an afternoon playing in the snow, now empty laundry baskets, and memories of sitting the hot tub explaining to our sons why we must limit their technology use, and daring them to make snow angels in their bathing suits.  Finally I sit down again, iPad blinking, ready to open another window into our lives.  Back to yesterday, back to another race, and a symbol of  the path we have chosen.

The last three years we have celebrated New Year’s Eve with my friend Mona and her boys.  We pile the kids into thick layers of clothing, hand warmers, and head to Belle Isle for the New Year’s Eve Family Fun Run. Last year when my oldest son saw the trophy for the 12 and under category for the 1 mile race, he asked me if he could skip the 5K and just do the mile.  This will be his only opportunity to win, since he turns 13 in April.  As we arrive I am rushed as usual and somewhat irritated wishing Elijah had done more prep runs.  I wanted him to get in 5 quality speed workouts, but with the Holidays, and the scheduled strength sessions, he only managed a few runs.  With an over packed to do list and last minute snags, we make it to the starting line with only a few minutes to spare.

The bitter cold bites hard and he bounces trying to keep warm.  I remind Elijah of the basics, check out your competition, know the route, stay behind the leader until the end and then pour on the smoke.  He scans the crowd…”Mom, I got this.”  And then a tall kid dressed in tights, Hanson running gloves, and a Garmin watch steps onto the course.  Dang, it, dang, it, dang it…I chide myself, we should have done MORE practice runs.  And yet, there are HUNDREDS of workouts I have done with the kids over the last three years.  The hours we spend in our gym/garage working out, using a small space heater, bundles of stretch gloves, and fans in the heat of summer, we have been so faithful.  And so, I resign myself to let fate and faith take their course. “Just run your race son, it is what it is.”  In my heart, I pray the tall kid will trip and fall…and then quickly beg God for forgiveness.

And they are off…Elijah in the lead, pushing hard.  The track circles around the fountain, grownups encouraged to run behind the kids.  But I stay frozen on the course waiting with my heart pounding out of my chest…praying, pleading, hands balls into fists, hoping against hope for a miracle.  The tall kid pushes forward, Elijah falls slightly behind.  Its OK, I comfort myself this is what good runners do they fall back and wait to sneak up until the end. The boys are neck and neck as they disappear for a moment out of sight. And then from nowhere I see them, and the tall kid has widened his lead.  Tears are streaming down my son’s face as he struggles to keep pace with the longer strides.  I can see the breath and heat pouring from his body as the cold whips hard.  The near the finish line…the tall kid surges ahead, Elijah falters, and finally pushing through he comes in a strong second with no other runners in sight.

It’s over, and we have lost.  I rush forward to encourage him, chewing hard on self control to push down the bile of disappointment.  It is a bitter drink to be sipped slowly and painfully a taste too familiar to many parents with kids.  I find my son, wipe tears from his face, and barely notice when Zeke hands me a popsicle stick with a 5 on it.  “Look Mom, I came in 5th.”   The race director stops Elijah to take his name and information.  Gathering myself, I congratulate both boys and head to the building to find warmth. I call Mike, who is home with Eden…too cold for tiny hands this year.  “Mike we did pretty well they came in 2nd and 5th.” Elijah stops me cold…”Wait Mom, no I was first..that other kid, the tall one, he was 13.”  And my heart explodes with joy.

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Standing at the award ceremony watching my son hoist the giant trophy I see his stacks of workout sheets in the garage.  The binders lined up with 2013 goals, the pillow cases my children sleep on where we have written their goals with a sharpie, and night after night, month after month lugging them into that gym, putting them on the treadmill, feeding them natural whole foods. An entire sphere of their life focused on health, wellness, and achievement.  And today on January 1st Team Fante assembles in the gym, it’s time to hold up the measuring stick, to see how far we have come and how much farther we have to go.

Click the links below to watch Mike and Elijah hit their goals.

Mike Pull-Ups 2013

Elijah Pull-Up Goal 2013

And what of the other spheres, of being spiritually and mentally healthy?  A dog eared children’s bible marks our spot where we had read through the stories with each child.  Weekly non-negotiable visits to church, morning devotions, and a mountain of petitions for wisdom, each choice a single brick in the seamlessly unending work of building a foundation as we raise these children.  This work is wearisome, this work is difficult, this work is relenting, and yet I know this work will define me.  And this is why I must continue to set goals, grow spiritually, run races, eat clean foods, read great literature, and push, drive, and lead.  Each time Mike and I cajole, plead, and beg our kids to make good choice…it does not go well…but when we head silently out to the gym, run one more lap around the block, leave a bible out from morning devotions, share the joy of reading Tolkien together, and eat another meal of turkey burgers and steamed veggies, we look behind us to find three sets of goal sheets ready to be achieved.


Catching amber fire…

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Eleven weeks in and I am ablaze.  For the last few weeks my whole being has been consumed by my work.  It is as though I see through a pair of tinted lenses, my vision glazed with hues of pink and orange flames.  On some days I am shocked at my fierocity as I advocate, the flames of my passion making unimaginable demands on myself and others.  On others I stop thinking and just keep reacting, pushing driving, my battle lines defined by the twenty-three souls that sit at my carpet morning and afternoon.  I have been given one hundred and eighty-six days to change their world and their destiny…there is not one single moment to waste on apathetic routines, or ineffective lessons.

Each day I am brought to my knees at the intimacy of teaching at this level.  Twelve years ago when I taught I had one hundred and fifty students pass through my doors every day.  And for some, I could never know their story…there were just too many.  But I can know twenty-three.  I learn which baby brothers steal toys, swimming lessons happen on Wednesday, and there was chicken for dinner last night.  I celebrate both the loose and wiggly teeth and when one comes out in class, it is carefully placed in a small plastic bag necklace a trophy of growth and development.

I think about them constantly, with obsessive trips to the dollar store to buy yet another puzzle, weekly trips to Lakeshore, and reading and researching best practices.  I search frantically for innovative ideas and motivating materials.  It’s four in the morning and I am taping sticky notes on playing cards, as I struggle to untangle cheap packing tape from itself, I think about the boy who stands just outside my guided math table each afternoon.  He watches that first rotation with anticipation sharing aloud his thoughts, “Oh, I love that game Mrs. Fante, I can’t wait for my turn.”   That afternoon I am rewarded as he rushes to my table and asks if he can stay and play with me until after Christmas.

I reach back to my own memories of what it was like to be six…can my mind go back that far?  I remember the grown-ups.  There was Mrs. Lillabridge.  She was my muse in second grade.  She would pull me aside and whisper in my ear…”You are so smart Amber, you are so smart.” She would never know how her quiet words would be my tinder, sparked into full inferno several decades later.  I share the same secrets with my children, pulling them aside and quietly kindling future fires.  And it is this fuel which returns a rich harvest as I find piles of love notes left on my chair and placed in my inbox each day after Work on Writing.  “How do you spell teacher, Mrs. Fante?”  “How do you spell, best?”  They interupt my reading lesson to ask.  I know I should write the words on the word wall, but in truth, I love hearing them ask.

Is is their kindness and their love for learning, school, and me which continues to consumes my selfish desires.  It speeds my spiritual metamorphisis which the apostle Paul speaks of in Philippians 3:

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

I notice that when I smile at others, they respond with almost immediate warmth.   I wonder at this…and then I realize, spirit is starting to show through flesh.  It is as though my outward appearance is becoming more transparent as the flames of my spirit consume me from the inside out.  Some are uncomfortable as I wear the scarlet A of transparency, openly sharing struggles and saddness as well as joy and achievement.    But in truth, the light and heat inside of me pulses with such energy there is simply no turning back…I am another girl on fire.


The Battle Hymn of a First Week

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Week 1

Day 1:

7:30AM – My boys hugged, first day picture taken on the front steps, Eden and I are in the car on our way to school.  One of the biggest perks of my new job was the opportunity to take Eden my youngest daughter to work with me.  She is a wickedly smart five year old, who despite her proficiency at running my household – yes she cleans bathrooms- still needs her mom.  So it is the first day for us both…and we both have the jitters.  With only slivers of sleep and an army of butterflies flitting in my brain, I miss our exit and my 25 minute commute turns into 45…”Not good,” I chide myself, “Success is in the details.”

Still we arrive early and I hurry down the hall to my classroom, to discover I have decided to take my daughter to work…she looks at me.

“Now what am I supposed to do, Mommy.”  I realize with shock I never really thought through what it would be like to arrive at school early and stay late with a five year old who needs to be entertained.  The plan which sounded so lovely when I shared it with my friends, is a little less rosy with a huge task list and a child who wonders if you could play play-doh for a few minutes first.

We manage somehow, and by 8:40AM I am standing in the school yard shouting out my name along with the other teachers to parents. “Mrs. Fante, if you child has Mrs. Fante, Please line up here. “ No one moves towards me.  I glance to the side and there are other teacher receiving hugs and welcoming greetings from parents as their line start to swell with children.  But at my name no one moves.

Oh boy, this is terrible. I wonder, am I at the wrong school?  Is this teaching elementary school thing a dream…maybe I will wake up back in my office at the college.  A dad wanders up. Try, “Mrs. Miller, they still had her name on the school website.”

And suddenly at my cries of, “Mrs. Miller” an army of children file towards me.  Mostly shy and wide eyed they cling to parent’s sleeves, and offer my tentative smiles.  Some ask to take a picture while others are so unsure.

I am taken back at their beauty.  Children are indeed lovely creatures.  They faces full of hope at the promise of a new school year, skin smooth unmarked by the care of the world.   I realize these small tiny people are my new co-workers and I share twin responses of terror and elation.  I am hoping to change the educational world in some way this year, and I my plan rests squarely on the shoulder of six year olds.

9:00AM

We file into the hallway, and I have them line up against the outside wall of my classroom.  I sneak a peek, OK so the other teachers are doing this too.  I have planned this moment for some time.  I am going to teach them the morning routine with care and precision fostering their independence.  I instructed them to empty backpacks outside the classroom, hang it on the hook, and go inside the classroom and find your name tag and sit down.

The plan is simple, eloquent, so I think. I tap 5 children, and then turn to talk to the rest about how excited I am to have them in my class. I tap 5 more enjoying our engaging conversation with the remaining children in the hall, by the time I get to 15 children I look up see the children are faithfully following my instructions and they have emptied everything our of their backpacks on the floor.  One little girl is shaking out her backpack and a pile of glue-sticks spill out rolling pell- mell everywhere across the tile.  In fact, the pile is so large it is blocking the hallway.  I glance up and see with horror a line of sixth graders is headed our way and there is no way they are getting past that pile of stuff.

“OK, children…new plan. Just go inside the classroom and I will take care of the supplies.”  Now I am sweating, hurrying frantically to and fro to gather armfuls of supplies as the sixth graders tap dance around pocket folders and crayons, I hear a few giggles.    A literacy consultant comes down the hall, she watches me bend and stoop and immediately offers to help.

“Yes, please.  This was much better in my head when I planned it out.” is all I can manage as we lug the rest of the pile inside.

With kindness she says simply, “It’s OK, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

And this as it turns out will be my anthem for much of this first week.

I will hear the tune when the office buzzes me for not taking morning attendance…which I thought we turned in after the day was over.  And when there is a surprise fire drill and I realize with panic I have no idea where to line up.  And again I hear the notes after morning recess when I fail to count heads and my teaching partner returns one of them to me.

By the time the office buzzes me for the ordering and buying counts, I want to shout back at the intercom…”I have no idea, but I can give you a list of my professional accomplishments if you give me a minute.”  And with another jolt I realize all of the workshops, awards, and professional writing  done in another world have little meaning here.

What matters here is that you line up the hot and cold lunchers separately and in A, B, C, order, that you have labeled a laundry basket for cold lunch boxes, and a milk crate for media center returns, and can look at a child and know where they need to be for each of the four afternoon pick-up spots.  Perhaps my most shinning moment happens when my sixth graders fail to show up for the bussers.  (apparently I was supposed to request this) and I hear the intercom last call for bussers and ask the children to run “carefully” down the hall after me.

I feel so awkward at this, the routine are so unfamiliar and new.  I have spent the last few years gliding through my professional tasks with ease of habits and respect of my colleagues and now I am in a new world. Yet, there are wonderful moments mixed in.  The first time I read a story…it is magical.  They quiet instantly.  A boy in the front raises his hand, “Why do you smile so much?  And why are you so excited about being here?”  I peer down at him, and answer honestly, “I have been waiting to be here for a LONGGG time.”  He accepts this answer and smiles back.

I tell these children I have a secret wish.  I look at their faces filled with hope, and I leap back onto the ledge.  “Children I would like for us to be the best class in the …._________” Now I had planned to say school, or maybe even district. But looking at them, and thinking about my journey to get to this spot the moment is sacred, even spiritual. “Well, the best class in the WORLD.  What do you think?” Stunned by my own question…I can’t belief I just asked that… nothing like shooting for the moon.  But with the magical belief of childhood, without any hesitation, they eagerly shake their heads and clap in agreement.

And later that week at Open House when I announce this plan to the parents and unveil my nightly reading program which is researched based, but will require a rigorous effort not usually expected of Title 1 parents, they pledge their support.  Some of them cannot speak English, so I grab other bi-lingual parents I ask them to interpret and explain my goal for these children.  Many of them cannot understand my words, but they see the passion on my face and they respond.  We are going to do this, we are reaching for greatness…and we are not leaving anyone behind.

By the end of the week, I am exhausted.  My voice is gone, my credit card full of school related charges, my brain popping  with ideas on how to stream-line routines, and find guided reading books in English and Arabic.  And so my anthem takes on another stanza one that is more familiar, one that I know so well…”For I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

 


An Empty Classroom Meets Village Fante

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I left you on a Wednesday having soared through the air on the wings of being offered my dream job, as a first grade teacher in a classroom using a blended learning model.  Thursday, I was directed to attend a professional development session on the blended model.   Blended learning is a mixture of technology based-lessons which use adaptive technology to personalize instruction for every child, and classroom instruction which is largely offered in small groups.  The blended model is receiving national attention for its innovation and ability to help kids make huge gains in NWEA scores.  Mind spinning with ideas, I decided to take my hour lunch and head over to my new school to check out my classroom.  With only 13 days left until the start of school, I wanted to map out my attack plan for the next challenge.

I had heard lots of stories from elementary teachers about starting off without any resources.  Thinking back to my days of teaching high school, I remembered how I would put out a few hundred dollars each year to notebooks, carpets, and supplies for my students.  But surely, elementary school must be different…I thought.  Camp Literacy had been full of construction paper, glue, scissors, chart paper, kid sized furniture, bookcases, book-boxes, leveled readers.  I am going to need all of this…and more, my stomach twisted a little when I pulled in the driveway at school.  Our secretary greeted me with a warm smile and offered to take me to the room right away.  She opened the door and I walked into ….desks and chairs.  She handed me the key and turned to go…

Wait, I said, “Where’s all the stuff?  You know the kid stuff, the stuff you need to teach school?”

“This is it.  Just let the principal know if you need anything else.”

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She handed me the key and I sat for a second in total stunned silence.  This is it?  In less than 2 weeks approximately 25 kids are going to be in this space and I have to be ready to teach school and I have desks and chairs and little else….whatever will I do?

“Whatever will I do?  Whatever will I do? “The thought pulsed through my brain as I walked back to my car.  White knuckled I grasped the steering wheel, whisper a silent prayer, numb with panic.  I headed back to my afternoon session of the training, where I shared my story of an empty classroom with other teachers.  Over and over again, I heard the same story repeated from the lips of teachers as they looked at my stunned face in sympathy.

“The same thing happened to me.  I had to buy, borrow, and slowly build my library of resources.”  They patted my back. “Give it time…you will get what you need.”

And herein lays the problem…my worst personal hubris.  As I typed in my 4AM email to my principal the next morning, I am passionate, but not patient.  I find it impossible to wait, and the idea of getting resources by say…October would cause me to spontaneously combust.

But I have forgotten an important lesson I learned a few years ago…when in need, ask your network.  And so the phone calls begin.  Marci opens her closets and her basement and pours out blessings of pocket charts, an alphabet banner, posters, table caddies, IKEA chairs, trips to Lakeshore, owl ribbon, etc. etc. and first day of school activities, printables and two rickety bookcases.  Mike and I lug the bookcases home and he spends a few hours in his workshop making them as good as new. Marie petitions the powers that be and two metal supply cabinets and tables arrive.

Still there are 13 hour days and tons of chores; cleaning, decorating, organizing, labeling….my children come with me to help.   Friday night many hours in for the day and too many to count in the last 72 hours, I’m exhausted and ready to run screaming back to my cushy job as a faculty member.  As we are changing the backdrop of my main bulletin board one of our last tasks for the day, Elijah stops me.  “Mom, there is a family outside the window.  Look, mom they are holding up their little girl to the window. “ I barely stop to notice so intent on finishing this last job for the night. “Mooommmm,” he whines insistently, “Look she is smiling.”

At that moment, all I can see is my son’s face as he watches the family watching me…and once again I see another classroom that will need to be made ready…his.

“Yes, son I see them.” I wave to the little girl.  Her lovely dark skin breaks in a huge grin as she waves excitedly at me.  And across the window we connect, sharing the universal truths of, “Teacher, and “School.”

The next week, my village shows up in response to my all-call text messaged plea for a classroom prep party, as six of my girlfriends, my cousin, and her new boyfriend (who drove through the night to see her) come to help my climb yet another peak.  I serve chili from my crock pot and they assemble furniture, cut laminate and level hundreds of guided reading books to correlate with Fountas and Pinnel.  In the end they take home armfuls of laminate to their children and another girlfriend who couldn’t make it.  My mom comes the next night and spends three hours painting my tree mural.

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Friday is a blurry mad dash to the finish line as the last custodian is leaving at 9:00PM and I have a to do list with 25 things left.  By 8PM, I am running down the hall to return the vacuum to the custodian, and the finish line is in sight. ..my classroom is STUNNING.  And still it is a testimony to the power of a network.  As I close the door one last time, I realize truly alone I am not enough, but standing on the shoulders of my team I have more than I can even imagine.  IMAG1394IMAG1393IMAG1392IMAG1391IMAG1389IMAG1387IMAG1388IMAG1386IMAG1385IMAG1382

 


Trust the Journey

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As always I begin my story in another spot…a different time.  A time I thought would never end and I just wasn’t sure I would make it through.  I am 35, Eden is 6 months old, Elijah is 7, and Ezekiel is 4 but he communicates like an 18 month old.  It is early July and there is a bird on my porch.  I sit slumped against the couch my pores dripping with discouragement and exhaustion.  We have been detoxing Zeke for three and a half month.  I am not even really sure what the word means, I just know it has shaken me all the way to the roots of my soul.  My holistic doctor believes his body is full of toxins and his strange autistic-like behaviors which include the inability to look me in the eye or call me mama, are caused by a body polluted by the world.  I am not sure what to believe all I know is that I have leaped off the cliff of normal and entered a strange dream like place filled with vitamin shops, supplements, and gluten free weirdness.  Mike and I have no idea if this will work, but we have played every other card … this is the final hand.

Most days I free fall through what feels like a nightmare, holding down my screaming child while he kicks and refuses to enter unfamiliar places, cradling him in my arms as I feed him organic gluten and casein free pancakes filled with supplements, and whispering in his ear, “I love you, and I will try, I love you and I will not give up.”  I have surrendered to the outcome…I have mourned for the girlfriend he might never have, and the birthday invitations which may never come.  He has been responding to the treatment…some.  My doctor explained there are cycles of regression and healing and this is part of the process. He started a new round of detox last week and there have been no real words today, his eyes slide away every-time I tap his face, and he flaps his arms ready to take flight.  It is time to begin the process of making dinner, which will include using stainless steel pots, grinding supplements, and helping him eat each spoonful.  I long for the drive-through, when fluttering wings catch my eye.  It is a plain grey brown sparrow. He hops happily searching for crumbs, finding none he stretches his wings to leave the emptiness and find a place where he can feed.  In split second before flight, with all my heart I become the sparrow, I soar into endless blue skies leaving behind the endless cycle of weariness and despair.

And suddenly, Christ is there. He is so close during this time, walking hand in hand and carrying me on the days when walking is too hard.  “Lord,” I beg. “Please set me free from all of this.  I can’t do it anymore. I had so many dreams for family, for myself…and Lord he is my son.”  He says nothing, but I look into a craggy face and feel the warm winds of hope spreading out from his gentle smile.  He, who has known pain and death, scoops up my tears, lifts me to my feet, and sends me back into the kitchen.  “This is your journey, my love.  Every time you cook, comfort, and hope you are my hands and feet…go bake those veggie brownies.  I love Zeke and it will be OK.  Someday you will soar like that bird. I made you both and I am keeping your dreams safe.  This is your work for today, but I promise you another day will come. “

And five years later there are multiple birthday invitations in the mailbox, Zeke plays back-up quarterback on the St. Joan of Arc football team, is the most loving member of the Fante household, and another day has come.  I know with certainty it is time for my own little dream for myself.  I need to return to K-12 education…this time to elementary school, but I blinked and I am 40 years old and many years have past.  I have spent a decade in the ivory tower working at the college as the ECE Program Director, and like Rapunzel I am not sure how to get back down.  As I peer down from the high walls of the keep I see a posse of teachers have gathering around the stone base.  Marci Jahn my loyal true-hearted cooperating teacher, Sarah Toko, my warm supportive teacher friend, and Marie Smith, a veteran teacher/commander send up shouts of encouragement, “What are you doing up there?  Come down right now, there are children down here who need your help. “

I yell back, “But, it’s scary down there, and how the heck can I make it …there are thousands of teachers and just a few job openings…what if they don’t want me, what if I fall?”

Marci responds, “Look at the picture I gave you on your fourth day of student teaching.”

I glance at the print.  It is a lovely framed print hand-signed by Kelly Roe.  A beautiful sparrow perches on a branch.  But this birds wings are a kaleidoscope of colors…pinks, orange, and leopard print.  With a flash of insight I understand…I am the bird.  My wings have turned from grey to a rainbow hue.  They are colored by the sacrifices of compassion and love.  My cell phone rings, “This is Mary from UCS, we would like to invite you to interview for an elementary teaching position. “ The voice wonders, “Can you fly?”

I hop on the window ledge.  I peer over the edge unsure of my transformed self.  But I see the smiling faces, I hear their words of faith and hope.  I get past the first interview and another is scheduled.  I still hesitate, knowing the ride down will be turbulent with change.  And Mike sends a text message, “Nothing great happens when you hold back.” I close my eyes, spread wings taunt, and leap from the window.   FALLLL….ING….(no phone call back, weeks pass, waiting for my ZG certificate to post…to “I have been authorized to offer you a job, please come to the new hire orientation.”)..FFF…..LL….YYYING.

I land on the ground with my new friends, a fresh soldier on the battle ground of teaching elementary school in a 21st Century Classroom.  They hug me tight…there are preparations happening all around us, bulletin board cutouts, word walls being erected, desks being labeled.  They hand me a stapler and we are off with new mountains to climb, and reading assessments to complete.  I tuck back my wings, and look down to discover I am wearing a necklace with the simple word, “truth” printed on it.  I look up to see Christ has been watching all along.

“Keep that necklace,” He says.  “You’re going to need it.”

I smile thinking to myself…a decade felt like 10 minutes.  I wonder what the next leg of this journey will hold, but knowing I am not, nor ever have been alone.

 


A Team Fante Effort!

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Twelve years ago on my last day of teaching high school, I told my students I was leaving to begin a new job.   It started the next week on a Thursday at 2 AM when a screaming infant ripped into the world.  It was not the Hallmark moment I imagined, but a good indicator of how reality is much more complex than the hazy pink glow of motherhood I let take root in my head.  A few sleepless night later at 4:00 PM my husband found me seated in my glider in our beautifully decorated rain-forest nursery sobbing hysterically.  “No nothing is wrong with the baby.” I assured him, “It’s just that usually by now I am on my way home from work, and I just realized I am never going to be off from work again.”  This morning as I type those words I remember that green girl and grin because…she was right.  From the moment of my oldest son’s birth, I have never quite been my own woman.  And unlike the other jobs I have held, there are some days, when I am so unsure that I am decent employee worthy of the title of mom.

My children come with me to Camp Literacy.  They are enrolled in the program and we car-pool together.  They are the worst co-workers you can imagine.  They are constantly late, running up to the car and then remembering they haven’t brushed their teeth.  I can’t tell you have many times we are 10 minutes into our commute and they ask me if I brought them something to eat because they forgot breakfast and are starving.  They talk too loudly, change the radio station, and every time we hit a drive through…I have to pay.  By the time, I arrive at work I am usually frazzled rushing them off to their classes before I welcome a classroom full of more children.  Once last week when my husband was off he took them to the pool for the day, and I went to work alone.  I arrived 1 hour early, listening to my personal Pandora station, and drinking a Starbucks latte.  It was soothing, peaceful, and…lonely.

I tried to remember that feeling on Wednesday this week, as I was driving to work exhausted from a long night and early morning of prep, laundry, and email.  You know it’s going to be difficult when you are headed towards your destination wishing you were on your way home.  Everyone has an unmet need that day.  I packed Zeke a blueberry yogurt for breakfast.  He announces he HATES blueberry and shouldn’t I remember since dad only sends him vanilla.  Eden refuses to brush her hair, stating it looks like Rapunzel when it is tangled in the back, and Elijah grumbles he doesn’t feel well and will be taking a morning nap in the sleeping bag I set up for my class to use as a reading area.  “Oh no, you will not,” I toss back.  “I have parent-teacher conferences this morning and I don’t want you rolling around in the tent. What would the parents think?”  By the time I stumbled into the classroom, conferences are starting in 5 minutes and I have 85 things to accomplish.  When the administrator of the program stops by my room, she asks politely why Elijah is curled up in the sleeping bag, I have a silent mental temper tantrum and ask him sweetly to come out.  “But mom, you said when you have a parent in the room, she’s the boss not a parent.” Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, and breathe out.

Finally my children settled in the hall with books and breakfast, I start the conference.  It seems to be going well as I share my insights into how to motivate a child to spend more time practicing site words, the parent smiling and nodding, until my 5 year old daughter wanders back  into the classroom.  She creeps close to my ear, knowing she is pushing boundaries and shares in a very loud whisper, “Mom, Zeke is bored.  He wants to go home and I hate writing.”  I look at her unblinking.  Now where am I supposed to go?  “OK, sweetie back in the hall.  Mom will be there in a minute.  Tell Zeke to eat his yogurt.” Dear reader as I am sure you remember…Zeke HATES blueberry yogurt and this is information that has to be shared.  So I did what every self respecting educator would do in my position, I pretend my daughter doesn’t exist and turn back to the parent with more sound advice about teaching children at home.  Only by this time, the mom has a knowing grin on her face.  Yup, I am exposed, the soft under-belly of my struggle to raise my own kids left bare.  And somehow in this moment she seems to like me more.  “It’s OK,” she comforts me; “my kids are the same way.”

And so begins another day of learning letters, being patient, sharing sounds, being patient, discovering the joy of blowing six foot bubbles, being patient, reading Lilly’s Plastic Purple Purse, being patient.  Until finally I am seated on the carpet with my students, the scheduled agenda behind us, and it’s time to meet our letter of the day puppet.  I use my phone to record this, so parents can go to my website and watch the videos with their kids. Teaching is my happy spot.  Somehow it was and has always been an island for me, my normal, leaving me feeling refreshed and renewed rather than drained.  And then my son appears at the outer edge of the carpet.  His teacher’s helper, one of my college students at Baker, brings  him to my classroom because he has a fever.  Suddenly in a cosmic clash of the universe all three of my identities collide; mother, teacher, faculty member…everyone is at the carpet and I am on stage with a nurse puppet on my hand.  What to do, what to do?  Smile at the student teacher, and let the nurse puppet take the 12 year old’s temperature while my five year old students giggle with glee. (You can watch my personality crisis live below…LOL)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NrkjC6mJMY&feature=youtu.be

On the way home from Camp, my children watch the video over and over again.  They think it is hilarious the nurse puppet nuzzling my son as he good-naturedly refuses her kisses.  And as always I search for meaning…which comes as I stand in the kitchen doling out ibuprofen and peanut butter sandwiches.  Elijah mentions casually, “Mom, I think the way you teach your class is awesome.  You do everything in a hands-on way.  If everyone taught like that kids would never forget what they learned. Someday, Mom I will be that kind of teacher.”  He walks away leaving a trail of sticky peanut butter crumbs all over the island.  And so my biggest critics are my greatest fans, their praise a balm for my tired soul.  I think of my husband who trapped, labeled, and cleaned out of jelly jar to hold a stag beetle for my class last week, my daughter who created a learning-center for my kids by gathering all my letter shaped-cookie cutters and her personal play-doh, and the boys who help me pack the car every morning with blocks, Sponge-Bobs, and other items designed to delight the kids in my class.  And I know with surety this is OUR journey, a TEAM FANTE effort for greatness in the classroom.  And like all great teams their support will lead to achieving more than one ever could alone.


Storming Castle Literacy

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Books, books, books, my best friends, mentors, and ideas have always come from books.  I once had a teacher who said you can’t write what you haven’t lived.  I remember thinking that day, I would be limited in my writing since I knew so little.  Born the child of a conservative minister, growing up in rural Connecticut without the influence of television, travel, or deep thoughtful conversations, my experiences came from reading great literature on a blanket under the arms of a great oak tree or wedged inside a hidden attic space in the corner of my bedroom way down deep so my mother couldn’t find me and make me come out into the world.  I found the world a puzzling place where the real people were so different from my fictional friends.  In my books, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms, and Anne of Green Gables traded sorrow and sadness for redemption and renewal.  Alongside Huckleberry Finn and The Swiss Family Robinson, we had wonderful adventures, faced challenges, and made good choices, our futures ripe with harvested rewards.  The real children in my world were mean-spirited, playing games of status which left me confused and most often holding the lowest rung on the social ladder.  I once wrote a valentine note to the most popular and lovely girl in my 5th grade classroom.  I explained I would like to be her real friend, a friend to share secrets and sleepovers.  I apologized for being angry that she made me feel so small and sad.  At recess she shared the note with the class and admit their giggles, I learned an important social lesson…my secrets were not worth keeping.

And so books have opened another world for me.  In the place of fleshed mentors, I have had the wisdom of the written word to guide my path.  I learned early to use books to fill up the void, to learn new skills, and master the most complex of tasks.  Think of it, a single book holds the toil and the lessons born of another’s labor.  If I can embrace their learning, I can grow so quickly using their words as a road-map to flourish.  Books are my backstage pass to the world’s best doctrinal apologetics, fantasy writers, marriage psychologists, leadership gurus, nutritional experts, and classroom teachers.  But these books I have read about literacy have introduced me to a new class of authors.  When I was working in my K-12 classroom a decade ago, most of the experts who were being published were coming out of the university.  They wrote from a theoretical perspective which made their work highly cognitive but often difficult to apply.  In truth, I think they suffered from the same reality vs. fantasy dilemma I had in 5th grade as the children in their fictional classroom were always eager participants in the learning process.

Yet once again, I find myself thinking…”Wow, things have changed.”  As I return to teaching children there is a new crop of writers I have used to find my way.  Thanks to Marci Jahn, my incredible teacher who is constantly stuffing books into my work bag to take home and “just glance over when you get a chance” I have feasted on the most innovative of classroom literacy practices.  It started with “The Sisters” and their wonderful journey of the Daily 5 and the Café Assessments moved into Tanny McGregor’s series on Genre, and this weekend continued with Ralph Fletcher and Boy Writers, and Steven Layne’s Igniting a Passion for Reading.  I cried three times when I read Layne’s powerful words about sharing a passion for literacy with our youngest learners, my tears another highway marker in my journey home.  Teaching children to read is one of the most technically challenging tasks we face as educators, but Layne’s words about raising an alliterate generation of children, children who can read but don’t, struck a cord deep in my soul.

Once again my heart pulses with these beats; I must help the children find a way, I must help the children fall in love with books, and I must keep working on changing my pedagogy so they can grow.  And this time, it is the teachers in the trenches who are holding out a hand to show the path through the darkness and towards light.  Their palms hardened by the challenges of 21st Century teaching they grip tightly sensing the passion in my outstretched fingers.  They pull me close and listen to my secrets…I am afraid I won’t be enough or able to nurture these children into strong confident readers.  And like the classical literary heroes of my youth they do not disappoint, they lean in and whisper…”Come with us, there are dragons to slay and you have a warrior’s heart…you’re just the kind of teacher we have been waiting for.” And so I am off to claim the castle and help the children find the kingdom’s treasure…it is a secret keep where the books are waiting.


Camp Literacy and Vegetable Soup

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Everyday as I leave Camp Literacy my brain is a swirling vortex of literacy vegetable soup, thoughts spinning, mind leaping from one burst of creativity to a question of theory and application.  Dip in and letters mixed with the vegetables of multi-leveled children appear on the spoon.  The first spoonful is soggy, the letter shapes so bloated they are difficult to distinguish like the children who labor to make their sounds finding the simplest blending an effortful task.  Yet dip again and a spoonful of perfectly clear four and five letter words appear on my spoon, they slide across the spoon forming new word combinations as quickly as the eye can watch in a joyful display of discovery.  I let the spoon drop back again into the mix, this time a number joins the letters on my spoon as the words Daily 5 materializes.  I pear intently watching the words shift and move under my gaze as they form images of children reading to themselves, and writing piles of words into secret notebooks, and then the pictures are gone and the word Café takes it’s place.  My hand is poised in mid-air, as the strategies file across my spoon, flip that sound, cross-check, fluency, accuracy, and idea after idea parade across the spoon. As I lower and lift, more and more ideas flit through the theater of my spoon.  The soup is getting richer and thicker under my gaze as the books I read and the conversations I have add more ingredients.

And now the soup is always with me like a constantly simmering crock pot of meta-cognition and I get angry feeling like I should already know these answers, I am asking too many questions, and things have moved too quickly in the time I have been away from direct teaching in K-12 education. But sometimes the soup slops into the other compartments of my head, like the bill pay area, or the when you stop by Staples buy a new mouse for the computer instead of wandering around like an idiot area.  I forget important things like that I am committed to daily exercise and my children need to eat three times a day, and a bag of Cheetos does not count for one of the three meals.

So now I can officially say…I am BACK.  I can say it because I am back with a VENGEANCE and with the sweet relief that comes from the end of the longest, hardest kind of journey you can imagine.  In fact, the last little leg of the journey turned out to be so tricky I wasn’t sure I would make it back, but yet here I am obsessing over the children in my classroom, planning lessons far into the night, and dreaming of making connections while showering and brushing my teeth.  I knew if I could get to this spot I would be like a woman possessed.  And so I am, the deep desire to help children learn pulsing through every part of my mind and body at work like a spiritual awakening in my soul.

And to be honest, I am somewhat terrified.   Twelve years ago when I left K-12 I did it with intention and as though someone was ripping out my heart.  I left to raise my family.  Having watched my parents lose their kids by becoming obsessed with running a church and leaving us to luncheons of Big Macs, I didn’t want to repeat their mistakes.  I LOVED teaching, but I needed to devot myself to raising my children and I knew the classroom would get in the way.  I left a school where I was a technology guru, teacher of the year, a short year from tenure, and on my way to teaching stardom to change diapers, and read Rollie-Polie-Ollie.  The first three years I cried on the first day in September when the kids went back to school and I went to the park with a stroller.

Don’t misunderstand I loved being home with my children, but there was no one there to cheer my victories, and no one applauding when I taught Elijah to use the potty or use two word combinations.  It was a labor of love, and the kind of sacrifice that no one can really ever understand because it was done privately behind the four walls of my house and only my husband and the three sweet babies we brought into the world were there as witnesses.  In time, I would find my work at the college to fulfill my need to teach in many ways, but still preparing future teachers is somehow different than teaching children yourself.  Still it was during these long wonderful, exhausting, and amazing years I learned balance.  I learned that I am a three part-person with a body, a mind, and a spirit, and that all three parts must be attended to for me to be healthy.

It’s hard to find balance when you are fanatical.  And yet, here I am ready to try.  To be honest the first week I was really worried.  I skipped working out three days in a row and was on my way to another day, before my blessed husband told me I was going to get a pot belly and drug me kicking and cursing into the gym.  Thankfully by the time we hit 40 minutes, I was drenched with sweat and felt the stress hormones replacing themselves with endorphins and remembered my groove.  OK, yes this is why I NEED to exercise, I am a better teacher, mother, wife, person when I get my body into motion.

And Friday night, just as all the sugar plums were tucked into bed, my oldest son’s questions about God and eternity, and if it is a sin to be tempted to call someone the F word when they have called you the F word 20 times in a row made me pause.  I sat on the edge of his bed and talked about God’s goodness and mercy and remembered the pain of middle school and how much I needed and still need the reassurance that there is a God and he is good in order to feel sane.

Finally a decade later, I get the pause.  If I had not stopped teaching K-12 I would already have the recipe to my literacy vegetable soup dilemma….but I would be LOST.  It is the balance that makes me able to CARE.  I care deeply and passionately out of a space of such personal joy and happiness.  I am so blessed to have a family who needs and loves me, a social network of friends who are genuinely happy to be near me, and a spiritual family who feeds my soul.  They are the fuel that fires my ability to teach with passion.  They are the broth for my soup, without them I would become dry and brittle.

I return to my soup…back to figuring out which kind of learning experiences work best for children.  How they should be grouped so I can use my assessments to meet them at individual levels?  And how can I make the environment so much fun they accept the invitation to learn.  But first, back to the dishes that need to be put away, church this morning where I will lift my hands in a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and an afternoon at Marine City with my children where I will build a sandcastle.  Late tonight after I worked out for an hour, and packed the bags for my two sons to go to summer camp, I will find my way to lesson plans…and somehow my crock pot soup will finally be ready to yield up its contents so that on Monday morning when I find my way to the classroom my students will be nourished by its richness