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Branding Kids as Gritty

It is the first glorious Saturday in early may.  The breeze is a perfect balance blend of warmth and cool scented with the freshness of cut grass and green growth.  My sons swing, throw, hit and dive with relish onto summer diamonds and instead of my usual posture of clinging to the fences, I am sweating in a classroom at Wayne State listening as a teacher pours out a story of failure.  The ballad he sings has a familiar chorus.  It is one I could write if I had any musical talent.  But today I am not mentor or muse, but instead peer and compatriot as he shares a story which is only his to tell and mine to feel.

It started out so promising as most fabulous failures are apt to do.  The year before he had media worthy success and this year in an attempt to increase his effectiveness he gave the kids more space to grow, explore, and even fail. And this year with a new crop of kids…the outcome was different.  I watch him rub his brow, frown, and squirm clenching and unclenching his jaw as he grows more agitated .  I feel his irritation and mounting frustration at the process of trial and error, risk and reward.  He knows some students have grown and learned exponentially, but his fear is NOT ALL.  And he is greedy for all kids to  reach the peak, he doesn’t want even one left behind.

This mystery of how to move all kids along the motivational continuum is my personal obsession.  It has defined my work as an educator, a parent, and a person.  How is it possible that someone who was once obese is now a health and fitness gluten and dairy free fanatic? How can my child have morphed from a speech delayed special needs student into a child who is well like by peers and a pitching star?   How can the children in my Title 1 classroom have so much academic growth?  On some long days I wish for a quick recipe that would fit the 140 characters of my Tweet, but I think of Einstein’s famous words on complexity, ” Everything should be as simple as possible but not simpler.”  The truth of these massive movements is they have taken mountains of gritty effort.

Grit…the magic ingredient which spurs genius into invention and allows you to face the sacrifice of grueling hours and unending task lists without blinking or balking.  What is it that produces this quality in us?  In others?  And above all, how do we teach children to have grit without grinding away at their creativity and imagination?  I know that I am gritty about my children and their successes, but how do I teach them to be gritty about their own futures? For grit without a passion and purpose is a life sentence in a concentration camp, a hopeless unending means of torture…but when the light of hope blazes brightly, it is a Rocky-esque montage of chasing chickens and jumping rope. It speeds by in the blink of eye and suddenly you are ready to face the Russian in the ring and knock him senseless.  But before they are lifting weights at 6:00AM on a 20 degree morning, completing year long inquiry projects with minimal supervision, or piling dishes into the dishwasher without being asked…I have to give them a VISION of why.

And here is what I know so far about grit…it is tied to identify.  When I BELIEVE in what might be, it empowers me to reach out with an expectant  hand.  Many kids and grownup do not believe they can change their lives.  Blinded by heaps of disappointment and personal struggle they give up on hope and live in the land of survival.  When you hope for something better your sacrifice means a reward awaits, when your mental state is maintaining existence you view delayed gratification as too much to ask.  If I know that I am college bound, my homework can feel like meaningless drivel but I do it because it is an means to an end.  But if my vision of myself as a college graduate is murkier…if I am unsure of how I am getting to college and if I will have the means to complete a degree, if I don’t see the value in a college degree because the degrees they offer have nothing to do with how I like to spend my time…why sit at a desk puzzling over Algebra when I could be watching Captain Sparkles defeat Zombies?

In my classroom I have fought everyday to show my students how to have a growth mindset.  By branding our Room 4 mantra as F.L.I.G.HT. (Fearlessly Learning Growing Improving so we can Hit Targets), I have asked them to develop new ways of viewing the future.  I have tried to create a group identify so can view themselves as capable of having bright and beautiful futures.  Some of them have internalized the group’s identity, I hear them ask one another, “Is that what a leader does?” While others still struggle tremendously to move along the motivation continuum.  And although even these students have had great academic achievements this year the work they have done has been for me and not for themselves.  Even after a year of modeling success and leadership on a daily basis they do not view themselves as capable of more.

These kids need piles of external rewards as a I work ceaselessly to incentivize their good choices.  And over the year, they have come to trust in my even handed justice.  They know I will deliver on both rewards and punishments.  Because this group has such low levels of grit, working independently is a relentless struggle.  They need constant monitoring or they are unable to complete even the most creative and interesting tasks.  In a classroom where free choice is valued, they present a unique challenge to a open ended learning environment.  Things are the worst when there is a substitute teacher.  When I am removed they are left without the strong external regulators they have come to rely upon.  They often find themselves unable to remained focused on working productively.  And yet, there have been huge gains.  These same challenging students have moved 2-3 RIT bands of growth as measured by NWEA, they have achieved A-B averages on a rigorous science and social studies curriculum, and they have turned in nightly homework.  They might have only done because of external pressures but they HAVE done some amazing things.

And what of the others?  The others have achieved more than I dreamed of…At almost every level they have surpassed what I thought was possible because more than their faith in me, they have come to believe in themselves.  They are leaving Room 4 convinced they are smart, capable of growth, understanding mistakes are how you learn, and they view themselves as scholars and leaders.  They know leaders act in certain ways and I believe some of these kids have grown in grit, developed habits and patterns of success.  They have moved farther along the motivational continuum stretching towards the promised land of  fully self regulated internal motivation.

This year with these kids has taught me that if we are going to help students grow the grit they need to become hyper motivated, we need to show them how to identify with these levels of success.  My classroom brand has created a group identify which kids used differently.  For some it was exposure to a totally differently way of viewing themselves as scholars and leaders.  This growth mindset challenges their previously formed identities causing ripples of internal conflict.  Others were able to assimilate the F.L.I.G.HT. brand with their personal choices.  For these F.L.I.G.HT.  Is no longer a choice, but a series of guidelines for the way they live life, as it become a part of their identify.  I believe I cannot teach content in a way that will impact how kids think…until I have changed or at least challenged the way they think about themselves.  And I will never have students with enough grit to work on challenging rigorous tasks independently UNTIL they view working in this way as a realize their hopes and dreams. So when our ambitious classroom projects fail, I think we need to ask ourselves did ALL fail?  And of those who failed was the project, class, assignment tied to a critical part of their identity, or was it just an assignment?  For the children in my life and their success are a HUGE part of my identity.  Their failures and struggles are my own as I work with grit and determination to remove the obstacles to help them find a dream of what they might be…

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Setting the Table for Motivation

All of my adult life I have been obsessed with stories of passionately motivated individuals.  Some of the best stories involve a person who wanders aimlessly blowing through life with little ambition until they stumbled into the perfect nexus of interest and self realization.  I have read stories of young Olympians driven by the relentless pursuit of excellence, inventors undaunted by countless failure, and political leaders determined to create waves of change.

In fact, in my own motivational journey I wandered somewhat like the Israelites in the desert until I found my path as an educator.  I knew I loved learning, and I knew I could teach, but I was interested in so many things I had a hard time focusing in on one path.  I also had some pretty bad habits.  I was creative but disorganized, intelligent but unchallenged, and basically inconsistent at bringing it everyday.  I grew up in a family with some serious economic struggles and I felt the insecurity of my position all the time.  It was not until Mike, my future husband, came into my life with his perfectly matched sock drawer that things started to change.

Mike helped me channel my chaotic approach to all things by asking me to complete ONE degree.  By the time I have met him, I had switched from pre-law, to psychology, and was going to take off a year to write the next great American novel.  He told me greatness started with staying on one path AND putting the toilet paper on the roll a certain way.  He pushed me to go back and register for next semester, and when I showed him my registration card…he asked me to marry him.

He and I are ying and yang, a blend of creativity and dailyness.  Our marriage of almost 19 years is an epic love story of the ultimate growth mindset.  We leave each other so much space to keep becoming more.  And every time I wander into his basement workshop where every tool is lined up by size and purpose, I am inspired by his modeling.  My third grade classroom with its beautiful well stocked bookcases, meticulously kept math manipulates, and purposefully planned themed is a result of his influence in my life.

So this year, when I started to pick up my pace in my third grade science and social studies curriculum, and more and more students started to fail…I knew I needed to do something.  I was not willing to slow down.  I passionately believe in exposing kids to many different ideas in the classroom and I was not going to skip entire units just to drill and kill the vocab words which were a part of the assessments we used for our focus school data.  I wanted to spend my class time on exciting experiments, answering student created questions, and creating innovative projects…but MANY of my kids were not studying.  Despite the fact  I created quizlets, and flipped my instruction with videos,   they were not putting in enough effort to earn high marks.

I realized that some of the kids in my Title One building needed to be motivated by having a picture of what success feels like.  They were too young to be content with their own failure.  I reached back to my experiences as a college instructor and decided to implement a reward called, The Dean’s List Luncheon.  It would be a special lunch to honor the kids who had As and Bs in science and social studies tests.  I had no idea if it would work, but I kept thinking about how much I needed role modeling for my own transformation.

When I announced the luncheon, the kids were on fire.  They were so excited, they talked about it incessantly, asking when the event would occur.  After each test they would swarm me demanding to know if an 85% was good enough to earn a spot at the luncheon.  When several didn’t make it, they insisted on a retest, pleading with me to give them another chance.  Knowing this meant more time spent studying I relented and they crammed.  Each morning, I would be met in the hallway by at least one of them stating with confidence, “I’m ready, I studied for a couple of hours last night.”

The day before the formal invitations went out, the classroom was a beehive of excited energy.  I looked up from administering an oral reading assessment to discover they had created a list on the board of attendees and kids were lining up to write their name.  In their student blogs, the forum was full of banter about the luncheon, “YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I made the luncheon.  Are you going?”

Even my highest achieving students, the ones who didn’t seem to need any extra incentives were bubbling over. As we left for the day, one friend said, “There is no way I am going to be able to sleep tonight…I laid out my clothes on Monday.”

And so the big day arrived and with it my third graders entered the school, “dressed to impress”.  Decked out in polo shirts and dresses they were so proud of themselves.  You would have thought I offered them the moon tied with a silver ribbon instead of pasta and a Costco cake.  And my results were impressive, I went from 4 kids with a B or above average to 17 kids who were eligible.

Once again I have learned from my students.  It takes effort and grit to study, but kids are willing to do the work when they have a vision for themselves.  To create a culture of high academic achievement you have to model what success feels like.  And once kids feel their successful they become hungry for more.  Just as Mike has been my catalyst for change, so I am a spark for my students, igniting motivation and fanning its flame into a roaring fire of desire for more.

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5 Minutes of Change…

5 mins to share your story….5 minutes to change your life.

In November of 2013, I was searching the MACUL website and I came across those words…5 minutes to share your story.  The conference was calling for Lightning Speaker to do an Ignite talk.  I remember screaming out loud as I read through the description, “YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!”  It was like someone went inside my brain and decided to present me with the exact stage I hoped existed.  I was in the beginning stages of my first year of a massive mid life career change.  I had left my job as a full time college faculty member to reinvent myself as an elementary teacher and all I wanted to do all the time was talk about teaching kids.

If passion is my byline, then teaching is my muse. From the beginning of the school year, I kept wandering around the halls thinking,” I can’t believe they are paying me to do this job.”  Reading stories, dressing like Wonder Woman, playing math games, and growing bean sprouts with kids felt like Christmas every single day.  I was utterly in love with teaching my first graders, and I could tell from the bear hugs I got, the feeling was mutual.  A lightening speech would be the exact platform to share my story.

It was Thanksgiving Break so I decided to get up early and write out a script.  It took a couple of hours, and when it was finished I read it over and over drinking in every word.  It was a perfect description of my journey.  It talked about why I had started out teaching K-12 then left for a decade, only to return.  It was an explanation of my life and it helped me make sense of the detours and road stops.  All I had to do was add slides and upload to YouTube.  I was going to share my story and change my life.

You can’t begin to imagine my devastation when I opened the application again during my winter break to realize…I missed the deadline.  I cried for an hour, sitting at the computer with tears dripping off my chin and into keyboard.  My nephew knocked at the door arriving early for the school he attends with my boys.  I commanded him to sit down and I delivered my Lightning Talk to him.  I can still see his 12 year face peering quizzically at me.  “Yes, Auntie. It’s good.  Why are you crying?  Can’t you try again next year?”

A whole year to wait…a whole year to learn…and finally I realized a whole year to revise.

In that year of waiting…I pulled out my script every month or so, just to read it again.  And one day I realized it was all about me, instead of being about them.  I was telling my story instead of theirs.  So I made a decision to give myself permission to throw all my work away and start over.  I walked away from 20 hours of labor in the middle of my most challenging workload because I needed EVERY SINGLE word to count for them.  I needed words to give voice to why I set my alarm for 4AM, why I cried over their hurts, why I spent so much money on my classroom, and never had time for lunch in the lounge.  I needed words to remind all the teachers and people within earshot not to give up on me…or them.

I wrote it down and threw it away at least 10 different times.  I drew pictures in my mind, ran laps around the neighborhood, thought about my speech in the shower, and still couldn’t find the words.  Words have always been my friend, they had never failed me before but now none were good enough.  I realized I needed an analogy, something so POWERFUL it would change the way teachers viewed children and help them to see them differently. But, as the year slipped by…I was running out of time.

One day in late December as I was driving to school with my six year old daughter we were listening to Charlotte’s Web.  Listening to this story with her was like hearing it for the first time.  We laughed at Wilbur’s backflips, tutted at the Goose, and when Charlotte gave up her life, we both sobbed.  Sitting in my car outside my Title One Building holding her close, I whispered into her ear, “We are like Charlotte, Eden.  We will find good words to write in the webs of people we love.”  And so Support Webs from the Gap was born.

It is my love song, as Charlotte would say, “My Magnum Opus”.  I carefully crafted every single word, and purposefully planned each phrase.  I have pushed myself to live out the message of this speech in my classroom and in my home.  It has been a struggle.  There have been days when I have been so exhausted by the challenge of working with kids, the price for belief so great that I have had to pack it up and call it a night knowing that sleep with restore my faith

The night before I gave my speech was especially terrible.  My oldest son, let me down.  And weary from the strain of the moment that was almost upon me, I collapsed into tears on his bed ready to give up.  He gathered me into his arms, “Mom, you don’t know how to quit.  That is what makes you so great.  Mom, remember what you wrote in my web…it’s, ‘Hero’.  It will save me Mom.  Now go and say it for them.”

And so standing on a MACUL stage in the middle of March, I removed the curtain and let a crowd peer into my soul.  And all of those hours spent memorizing lines and laboring over syllables slipped away as my talk became a battle cry for the children from the gap.  If you get a chance to listen…I hope this is a image that sticks with you like it has with me.  I hope you see someone you love and the web you have over them.  I pray you decide to choose a label of hope.  And know that I am with you…beside you…believing together we can  all become something more.

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“Now is Now and it can Never be Forgotten”

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It is still dark when we hear these words, a simple line that drifts from the past and cements the bond of mother and daughter of reader and writer, words that will change a life.  My day started ridiculously early as my overfilled brain denies me much needed sleep and peppers my consciousness with the things I have forgotten to do.  I finally give up and head downstairs and into a day’s checklist which is impossible to complete.  I hit Audible and start baking as this evening’s events will include a party and I have promised gluten free chocolate chip cookies.  Teach Like your Hair in on Fire, Rafe Esquith’s amazing mantra of what good teaching can produce in the life of a child blares from my iPhone.  I whip organic coconut sugar and brown rice flour into a bowl as he tells of taking the children in his classroom on trips across the country, teaching them to play classical guitar music, and starting school at 6:30 AM to work on problem solving.  I am humbled by his achievement as I unload the dishwasher and brought to tears as I sweep the floor.  I begin my own classroom newsletter, inspired to remind the parents and children of Room 4 that we are going somewhere special.  I write furiously of my plans for change working past the banging of the porch door as Mike heads out to the garage for our morning workout.  By the time I shut down my computer and race out to join him, I have already missed the warm-up.  I grunt as we lift weights and pull up on the bar, straining and groaning against the unfamiliar routines of our new workout program.  Still we are together as our commitment in the dark drives us. By the end, I feel the renewal of my endorphin payoff and our strengthened connection.

I rush back into the house, shower, grab Eden and hurry her through the morning routines.  Finally we are packed into the car with the familiar school day items.  Her seat organizer overflowing with markers, paper, small toys, books, she knows we should practice the spelling list one more time.  Still we are close to the close of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story Little House in the Big Woods. Before Eden was born I painted her room pink and placed the box set in her room.  She is in many ways like the Laura, in the story being six years old with a smile full of missing teeth. I am so grateful to return to the big woods with her and learn about the struggles and joy of making butter and maple syrup.  My endless task list pales in comparison to Ma Ingall’s work to fill the table with hulled corn and milk for supper.  Eden and I are silent as we listen in to the final chapter, The Deer in the Woods.  Pa has returned from hunting unable to kill any of the game he sees because, as he explains to his small children, they are so beautifully a part of this world.  The children fall asleep to the flickering image of Ma mending in her rocking chair and Pa with his fiddle.  As Laura slips away she promises she will carry this image forever, “because now is now and it can never be forgotten.”  I stop the disk and look back into the shining eyes of my own pioneer.  And although she and I make copies instead of butter…I know she gets it.

“Eden, I will never forget going to work together.  I will never forget reading you the spelling words, or telling you stories on the way home. I will never forget the dark rides in and the long rides home, because now is now and it can never be forgotten.”

She looks up and says it back to me, “because now is now and it can never be forgotten. Mom write it like Laura.”

And all through the long day I say it to myself, “because now is now and it can never be forgotten.”

I say it during our F.L.I. G.HT. morning meeting as I share how much I love books and why they inspire me to write.

I say it during the good parts of my day when we are reading on the carpet together.  I say it when the day is challenging.  Some of my munchkins are sleepy and their behavior flares up.  They require endless amounts of patience and understanding.  By the time I make it to recess I am exhausted from both the day and their bottomless pit of need.  There will be time against the wall, and as I slump down to sit beside them Eden rushes up to me, her class also at recess.  She sees that I am sitting on the wall and she knows my day has been rough.  She hugs with with all of her heart and whispers, “because now is now and it can never be forgotten.” Her presence fills my bucket just enough.

I find once again my offers of love, forgiveness, and hope heal wounds and by the end of the day there are apologies and hugs.  Eden and I race from school, pushing now towards the sweetness of home and friends.  And all that night as we trunk or treat from the back of our car strung with glowing ghost lights and heaps of candy, as we dance under the moon with friends, as we keep the party going with a trip to another friend’s house for an after-glow event we smile and laugh.  And I remember to drink in my life…knowing that I will write this day down because once there are words “now is now and it can never be forgotten.”

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Taking F.L.I.G.HT.

 

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It is late August, the early morning sunshine is streaming through the screen door and I have gathered my children for our first F.L.I.G.HT. morning meeting. Elijah rubs sleep from his teenage eyes, “Mom, your crazy! Let me get this straight you want us to get up an extra 10 minutes early every day so we can tell each other about our weaknesses…OK that sounds SUPER fun” the sarcasm drips from his voice.

“Listen,” I plead, “it is not really that bad. I just want the good things I do to start here with you…my own kids and then to spread out into the lives of the kids in my class.”

He shrugs still not convinced but skeptically leans against the couch willing to keep at least one eye open.

“Ok here is the plan.” I share with them my classroom theme for the year. It is F.L.I.G.HT. I have sketched out a beautiful blueprint of how I am going to bring my theme to life in my classroom.  I will use colorful patterns and carefully thought out references to flying, and there will be birds everywhere. I will hang a canopy over my carpet and refer to it as, “The Nest”. But the most important part of F.L.I.G.HT. is not the furniture that Mike and I built over the summer or the hand painted mural, the best part of F.L.I.G.HT. is what it means.

The F is for fearless.

I am hoping I can teach the children in my life (both my cohabitants and coworkers) being fearless means to face your weakness. It means be willing to own the things you screw up and the stuff you wish you were better at.

The L is for learning.

To me learning is all about studying how to beat your weakness. As a self-help reading addict and a student of social psychology, I am always asking, “How can I become more?”

I is for improving.

Right smack is the middle, the I is the hardest part. I believe to improve you have to practice, practice, practice. You can admit your weak, you can know how to get better, but if you don’t put in the effort you will never change.

G is growing.

This summer I read Mindset by Carol Deweke. Having a growth mindset means you believe anyone can change and be better. For me it means believing the kids in my life can achieve greatness even if nature didn’t bless them them with an easy path.

The H and T go together…Hitting Targets.

If you know me, you know I am all about goal setting. I write them on my kid’s pillow cases, print them out on their checklists, and talk about them almost daily. I want all my kids to have huge goals. I want them to reach down and find some kind of quality they didn’t know they had.

I start out with F …being Fearless.

“OK kids. Here is mom’s weakness. I am too busy. I am trying to do so many things at once and sometimes it stresses me out. But I want you to know why I am going to attempt going to Master classes on Monday and Tuesday evening, after a day of teaching school. We have this goal that mom will be a principal and I need these extra classes to get my administrator’s certificate.”

Eden my six year old is crying. “But mommy, we need you too isn’t there another way?”

And that is when the magic happens…looking at her small face filled with tears I realize there has to be a different kind of solution. I make a few phone call and and find a program that is entirely online. Nope it is not the Top 10 school I had already registered for, but instead I will attend my classes sitting on the floor of my walk-in closet. It is a much better solution and I only found it because I was willing to share my weakness with my children.

And now there are 24 souls that sit at the edge of my Nest each day. They are amazingly courageous remarkable innovative problem solvers.  They decide on the first day to reward all my efforts to make our classroom beautiful with hugs and smiles. With glad hearts they become my morning companions at our daily flight meetings.

When I share my weakness of getting upset before school when my son tells me he is reading his Kindle but I catch him watching you tube videos, they admit they have done this as well. “Mrs. Fante, I lie to my mom too much. Maybe next time I will put my dirty clothes in the hamper instead of under my bed.” We all laugh and talk about the kind of integrity you need to make blended learning work. We all agree to hold each other accountable for using our time wisely.

I can not imagine what a year of sharing my failures with these children is going to do for me.  Here I thought F.L.I.G.HT. was about my efforts to improve their lives. But now I understand. I cannot reach them unless I am willing to let them help me. They need to see the real person who struggles each day to the edge of the nest, closes her eyes tight, and decides to stay safe or take a lead of faith off the cliff of herself to soar through endless skies. Somehow knowing my flight companions are perched waiting to see what happens makes my leap less of a decision and more of a commitment.

 

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Saying Goodbye to Room 23…

Three weeks ago I flipped off the lights and walked out of Room 23 without a backward’s glance.  It was the kind of goodbye that aches all the way down to the soles of your feet and I had a car full of boxes and a house full of children needing lunch, so I did what I always do and just kept going.  It has taken me all of this time to untangle myself from the year so I can find the words to let go of this past year’s group of kids.   When I walked into my first day of teaching first grade, on my back was a pack of a 1000 worries.  How much can kids who can barely read and write learn?  What do I say to someone who doesn’t speak English?  Will they like me?  Will I like them?  Will I bore them?  WIll they bore me?  Endless questions, no answer in sight, until we met, and then…love at first sight.

Teaching kids is an intimate thing.  There is so much to the relationship… trust, faith, hope, compassion.  I had felt my heart swell with the joy of watching kids learn when I was teaching high school, but teaching these children was pure magic.  When I was in college, one of my favorite authors was George MacDonald.  In one memorable passage, he writes about a mythical group of children called The Lovers.  The main character is waylaid from his journey and his worries by a beautiful group of children who just want him to pause and play under a fruit tree.  They laugh, sing songs, feed him apples, and give him hugs until his wounds are healed, his soul filled, and they send him on his way.  And to think, I got to spend a whole year under that tree…

There is something enchanting about being six years old.  You have only been alive for a few Christmases and Halloweens, and everything from snowfall to missing teeth is an event.   At six, you have piles of faith in the goodness of people, so when you feel happy-you hug, when you feel sad-you cry, and when you feel energetic-you do NOT sit criss-cross-apple-sauce.  Class News is filled with monumental happenings, like getting a bagel from Dunkin Donuts, a new puppy that goes, “hhummm, hhummm, hhummm”, and my mom baked a cake. Within the walls of this classroom is a planet of existence, Kindness and Caring its world powers.  And when Peace and Harmony are disrupted by someone’s unwillingness to share a matchbox car they brought from home…you tell the Queen having complete faith in her Justice.

As the year went by, I found myself slowing down.  I rediscover the joy of painting with watercolors, new boxes of crayons, and scratch and sniff stickers.  Somedays I would go to school tired, or stressed from the business of life, and there was always a good morning hug, a love note tucked on my desk at lunch, and a warm, “I’ll miss you” at the end of the day.  I also realize my buckets of adult energy can’t begin to match their DESPERATE NEED for movement.  Somedays their spirit is too much and it spills all over the floor and each other.  They break stuff, the noise level is deafening, and my head pounds.  So we do yoga, take brain breaks, and dance everyday…all things that also bring me pleasure.

And everyday they heal me of my adultishness a little more.  They remind me that life and the people in it are mostly good.  One May morning, I hear John Legend’s song, “All of Me”.  I realize this love ballad is the song my heart sings of them.

All of me, loves all of you

Loves your cuves and all your edges

All your perfect imperfections

I’ll give my all to you

You give your all to me

Room 23 has been a love song.  It is a culture born from my passion to let teaching be my mission, and their love for learning…and for me.  I expected to do a good job.  I expected to be successful.  I expected them to learn.  I never expected to be soooo very loved.  As I type and wipe tears from my chin, I have gratitude for their gift, thankfulness for their kindness, and immeasurable sorrow at leaving them.

There will only be one first grade year.  Next year, I am changing rooms and grades. My third graders will be older and wiser.  They will have more knowledge that life can be bumpy.  And they will need me too, the way good teachers are always needed by students.  But as I say goodbye to my firsties I am struck by the lessons they taught me.

When you feel happy – hug

When the world is unjust -tattling may not fix it, but you feel better

When you are sad – cry

When you are excited – dance

And above all make sure the people in your world know you care- write lots of love notes

Goodbye my dear sweet children, thank you for sending me on my way a little bit younger and a lot more whole. May God bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you as you journey on.

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Making Birthday Lemonade…Team Fante Style

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. “ my knight in shinning armor quipped.

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.

“My brothers do not be anxious about anything, but with prayer, petition, and with thanksgiving make your requests known to God, and the peace of God will penetrate your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”

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

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Letting Go…

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.

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A Triple Fit New Year

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.

IMG_2180

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.

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Catching amber fire…

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.

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