family, kindness, mom

First Birthday in Heaven

Today is my mom’s birthday.

In my memory, she is frozen in time.





In my first motherless birthday post from September, I described some of the birthday memories my mom and I shared over the years. One of my favorites was from her 60th birthday where I surprised her with a birthday brunch at The Jefferson Hotel. Her radiant smile and infectious joy is what I miss most from that day.


In this year of firsts without her, each day is a reminder:

Time is short.

Small acts matter. 

Life goes on. 

Today I wanted to put a little joy in this world by doing a few acts of kindness to celebrate my mom’s special day. We had an unexpected day off school – the sixth snow day this month – so I decided to make a quick run to the grocery store up the road and sprinkle some kindness while I could.

My first stop was the little Starbucks kiosk where I asked the barista if I could buy a drink to be given to the next stranger who ordered one. He looked at me a bit perplexed, so I glanced at his name tag and tried again.

“Hi Eric. I’m doing small acts of kindness to celebrate my mom’s birthday today. She passed away last year, but I wanted to add some joy to the world in memory of her, so I wanted to buy a stranger’s drink. Can you help me with that?”

Another barista named Keayanna overheard our conversation and shared her experience with acts of kindness.

“Somebody did that for me once. It completely changed my day.”

Eric was still a bit skeptical, but I persisted, determined to make someone else’s day brighter. “What’s in it for you? Are you sure you don’t want to order something for yourself?” At this point, I was laughing. I couldn’t wait for him to experience the joy of playing a role in someone else’s kindness surprise.

He rang up my purchase and handed me the receipt which I taped to the back of my handwritten note. I passed the note back to Eric and said, “Just give this to the next person who orders a drink and let them know it’s free!”

I walked away empty-handed, but filled with joy.

My free coffee note


Eric and Keayanna at the Rutland Kroger sharing kindness with others.
My next stop was the bakery. What’s a birthday celebration without cake? I saw a woman at the counter placing a cake in her cart and without hesitation I went up to her and introduced myself.
“Hi. My name is Tamara and I’m doing acts of kindness in celebration of my mom’s birthday today. Since she passed away last year, I can’t buy her a cake… would it be OK if I blessed you instead by purchasing the cake in your basket?”
The woman looked back at me in surprise then said, “Are you sure? That is so nice of you!”
I walked with her to the checkout line as she shared with me that her husband had lost a parent this past November. “It’s too fresh to really talk about it…” and no more words were needed. She shared that her husband, Jimmy, was having a tough time today with it being his first birthday without his mom. I knew exactly how he felt.
It was obvious that she and Jimmy needed this act of kindness today.
And what joy! Jimmy and my mom share the same birthday and Jimmy shares the same name as my grandfather. Some coincidence, huh?
I paid for her cake, returned it to her cart, then we went our separate ways. My heart was lifted yet again.
The birthday cake for Jimmy


Purchasing Jimmy’s cake with my handwritten note
The remainder of my trip to the store was leaving little surprises for others to discover. What kinds of things would I have bought my mom on her special day?
Ice cream treat.
Nutter Butter cookies.
For each item, I included enough money to purchase the items with more handwritten notes attached. It brought me such joy to imagine how my mom would squeal with surprise had she discovered such acts of kindness during a mundane chore of grocery shopping.
“What would you do for a Klondike bar?”


My surprise hidden in the frozen foods section of the store.


Doesn’t cost much to make someone smile! (Yes, I included change for tax, too!)


Maybe a child will find this one! (Hopefully not a child with a peanut allergy!)


My mom always loved flowers, big and small.
As I finished up my grocery shopping and headed to the self-checkout lane, I had to laugh when I saw the number above:
Of course.
Today is January 18.
My mom’s first birthday in heaven.
Happy birthday, Mama.
My last birthday celebration with my mom – January 18, 2017
So much birthday love! Mom and Bob – January 18, 2017


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family, kindness

Bakery Birthday


One of my favorite memories from our day in New York City was the kindness surprise shown to my sister-in-law, Dee. We had been walking around the city in 14 degree temperature, our faces numb by the chill of the wind with hands long since frozen in our gloves. Our legs were stiff, but our hearts were happy as we approached our final destination: Carlo’s Bakery.

Now if you are a fan of the TLC show Cake Boss, you are probably familiar with Carlo’s Bakery, known for their sweet confectionery delights. It’s a tiny little bakery on the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street right along the fringes of Times Square. (There are other locations in NJ and around NY, but this was the closest to our travels.)
The place was PACKED! Just trying to open the door was a challenge as people were lined up from wall-to-wall, but it was exciting to finally mark another item off our must-see bucket list!


They had a small glass window where you could peek in at the bakers and cake decorators as they prepared items for purchase. Oh, how I wish photos could capture aromas! There is no sweeter smell than that of freshly baked treats!



The cases of delicacies stretched across the entire front of the store. Cakes. Cannolis. Cookies. Brownies. What a perfect place to celebrate a birthday! Such an endless array of options!





My personal favorite – the black and white cookie – a shout out for all the Seinfeld fans out there!
Every now and again there was a worker who would hop on the corner of the checkout stand and shout to the crowd in a fun and jovial way. The crowd would shout back and for just a moment you forgot that you were in a crowded city of strangers – everyone felt like family.
As the line inched forward, I tried to plan out my birthday surprise for my sister-in-law. I pondered what to do to make her day even sweeter when another worker approached me to take my order.
“Do you do anything special for birthdays?” I asked.
It was a simple inquiry, one without expectation, but the smile on the worker’s face let me know that he had an idea of something he could do.
“What’s her name?” he questioned.
“Her name is Dee and today is her actual birthday!” I replied.
I pointed to my sister-in-law in her long red coat, her attention drawn to the cupcakes in front of her, and the worker nodded, then returned to the business of placing my order.
I had no idea what to expect, but there was an energy of anticipation as I waited to see what, if anything, would happen.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Without warning, the other worker hopped back on top of the counter again and shouted to the crowd.
“Anybody in here have a birthday today? Where’s Dee?”
I fumbled with my phone as I tried to capture all the fun of the moment, my sister-in-law completely surprised as the entire shop wished her a happy birthday. I panned around and the one thing that struck me about all the strangers packed like sardines in this tiny bake shop was this:
Everyone was smiling.
It was a simple act of kindness, from Carlo’s Bakery to us, but – wow – what an impact it had on our day! Check out the video to see it all unfold!

Their kindness continued as they made special arrangements to meet the needs of my niece who has a peanut allergy. Then, when Dee’s name was called to pick up her purchases, they presented her with an extra cannoli – free of charge! What a delightful birthday surprise!

Shortly after our visit to Carlo’s Bakery we made the long trek home with our sweet treats to share. Our joy continued the entire way; a reminder that we mattered, even in a crowded corner bake shop in the city.

Check back throughout the month of January when I spotlight various acts of kindness in the city. I would love for you to comment below with your experiences, too! 


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Pokemon Power

It started with a simple request from a first grade student. “Can I go sit over there and look through my Pokemon cards?” The school day was done; children were seated in straight lines through the hallway waiting for their daycare vans to arrive. This particular child was one whose body was always in motion, moving here and there and everywhere.

I quickly gave permission, after all it was after-school time and perhaps this low-key activity would keep him calm and content. My hunch was correct as he spent the entire time seated, completely immersed in his small deck of well worn, half-bent cards.

Other students quickly noticed and asked to join him, so a small group formed, all focused on the names, illustrations, and point values shown on the face of each card.. When their daycare vans arrived, they gathered their cards and headed out.

Now I will be honest with you – twenty years ago when these Pokemon cards had their first introduction into my instructional realm as an educator, I may not have been so understanding. In fact, my memory makes me cringe a bit as I recall the various toys and trends that students have brought into the school building that made their way into the back of my desk drawer.

But I am wiser now and a bit more patient. I see value in using whatever tools I can to engage students in conversation, in discovery, in sharing with others. From fidget spinners to silly bands, there’s always an opportunity to use what students love, we just have to shift our mindset.

As I was leaving the building that afternoon, another teacher passed by and commented about students bringing Pokemon cards to school. I think I may have surprised her with my interest, because I immediately started chatting about all the ways you could use them in the classroom for instruction. Intrigued, she walked a little closer and we continued our conversation as I explained how my eight-year-old plays with them at home with me.

“See, each card has numbers on them that represent different things. You could easily tie this into a math lesson as students compare numbers, add, subtract… students could write stories about Pokemon characters or even design a new Pokemon to sell on a trading card. The sky is the limit!”

Lucky for me, this teacher was open and willing to try something new, so we scheduled a time for me to come in and do a small group math lesson using Pokemon cards.

Oh, how I wish you could have seen the JOY on the students’ faces when they saw me at the table holding Pokemon cards! They were in shock! They couldn’t believe we were going to use them IN CLASS!

I worked with a small group of five students and had to start quickly because each rotation was only 15 minutes. I began by spreading out the cards so the students could see that, yes, we really were going to use REAL Pokemon cards in our lesson!

I flipped the cards over, mixed them up, and had students select two cards. They used their iPads to log into Seesaw and take a photo of the cards they had chosen. Then we talked about the numbers on the card and how we would use their health levels (the number in the top right corner of each card.)

Students were directed to use the digital pen tool to circle the key numbers on top of their photo then complete a specific task with the values. When finished, they tapped the record button and read what they had written, uploading their work to our Seesaw journal.

Since I was working with small groups, I could easily differentiate the lesson based on students’ individual and collective skills. For one group, I had them compare the health levels to see which Pokemon was healthier, then showed them how to rewrite the numbers using comparison signs.

(Wait a minute… that’s not a skill that’s described in their standardized curriculum… does that mean they can’t do it? Absolutely NOT! Give it a go and see what they can do!)

In another group I told a story that the Pokemon characters were going to join forces and battle together, thus joining their health numbers for a combined sum. We walked through the easier ways to add numbers that ended with zeros and students wrote and solved the addition problems.

For some, it was planting seeds to reading three digit numbers. For others it was extending their learning potential by harnessing the “light bulb” moment when they could figure something out on their own. Since I was right there with the small group, I could provide immediate feedback and correction as students completed the task.

Best of all, we completed all this learning in 15 MINUTES. That’s it! Fast, furious, and FUN!

Screenshot of comparing numbers
Screenshot of adding numbers

In Chapter 11 of Play Like a Pirate, Quinn Rollins discusses all the different ways you can use trading cards in the classroom. It’s a great book for learning more about how you can embrace the power of play, increase student engagement, and make your teaching relevant to the world in which your students thrive.

The next time a student asks to take out their Pokemon cards in the classroom, take a peek at their cards and have them tell you more about their passion. You might be surprised to discover a new way to teach a common concept!


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Kindness in the City

Last week I spent 24 hours in New York City, only my second time visiting the Big Apple. It was a whirlwind trip, a Christmas gift from Grandpa Letter to the granddaughters to see The Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall. As one of the two moms, I was just along for the ride.

I constantly joke with my family that I’m a city girl at heart. Oh, how I love the hustle and bustle of a thriving metropolis! I get caught up in the energy of people going this way and that; there’s a unique feeling of being alive in the crowds of people as they go about their daily business.

Now some of you may be shaking your head at the absurdity of my joy and that’s ok. Not everyone thrives in densely populated areas and there’s no judgement whatsoever if your happy place is far, far away from lights, people, and noise. Rock on in your solitude! For me, the city is the place to be.

One of the stereotypes I’ve always heard is how rude people are in the city. Horns honking, people yelling, nobody taking time to acknowledge anyone else. If you are a small town girl such as myself, you might be inclined to agree; after all, the busy city life is a far cry from driving through the streets near your home, waving at people you know.

But I’ve never been one for stereotypes, so they don’t matter much to me.

I love New York City!

I made it my mission to break the stereotypes for the short amount of time I was there. As many of you city-goers know, traveling by car can be a bit of a nightmare, so alternative forms of transportation are a must. We did a little bit of everything on our trip. We drove from Virginia to New Jersey. We traveled by train to Penn Station. We took an Uber from our hotel to the heart of the city and walked, walked, walked for miles in between.

One of my favorite things about this trip was chatting it up with our Uber drivers as they navigated through crowds where buses, taxis, and even rickshaws battled for ownership of the crowded streets. I was mesmerized by their expert navigation skills and intrigued at the stories they could share.

I learned their names.

I asked about their profession.

I inquired about their families.

I made the effort to learn about them, because everyone has a story to share!

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing these kind-hearted people to you!

Jared, our 1st Uber driver in NYC
Meet Jared.
He has lived in New York all his life and loves 5th Avenue as “the place to be” for the holidays. He laughed at our novice mistake of walking 10 blocks in the wrong direction, then showed kindness with his words as he acknowledged that the city streets could be confusing. Jared shared his knowledge of the hot spots to see in the city which inspired us to see some new sights!
Jagdeo, our 2nd Uber driver from Guyana
Meet Jagdeo.
He was born and raised in Guyana and became a jewelry maker in his Caribbean town. His home had 10 acres of land with dozens of fruit trees; just the memory of his homeland brightened the smile on his face. He came to New York City for safety and security. He was fearful from several robbery attempts and knew he could find a better life here. Currently, he lives with his wife and two small children and enjoys his job in the city. The photo above is him showing me the wedding band he made. (He made his wife’s wedding band as well!)
Vadim, our 3rd Uber driver who trained us in all things Uber
Meet Vadim.
Vadim was born in Russia, but when he was three years old his parents had a choice to move either to Australia or America and they chose America (Lucky for us!) Vadim stays busy with his thriving Uber business and two six year old twin boys (which instantly made me think of my dear friend, Annick!) He often thinks about moving somewhere warmer, but doesn’t want to give up his business as he’s built strong relationships with his local clients. He was a great help giving us the insider scoop on using the Uber app so all six of us could ride in the same car for the remainder of our trip. The photo above is of his boys (he also showed us a photo of his $100,000 Mercedes that he has at home, lol.)
Kevin, our 4th Uber driver whose smile could light up a room!
Meet Kevin.
Kevin was born and raised in Brooklyn and has actually been to Richmond, VA! We chatted about his travels up and down the East Coast and what keeps drawing him back to New York City. “You just can’t find any other place that feels like home. All those other cities are just too quiet for me.” He has two young daughters, so we gave him the inside scoop on The American Girl store and laughed about how expensive toys can be.
Each week this month I will be spotlighting the various ways I experienced kindness in the city. I hope this may inspire you to show kindness to others as well! And the next time you are taking an Uber, get to know your drivers! Their stories will bring a smile to your face!


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My Journey to One Word 2018

The past few days my Twitter feed has been dominated by tweets and links about #oneword2018 resolutions from members in my PLN. Although I’ve only participated in this trend the past two years, I can see its impact on reflection and rejuvenation for purpose and goal-setting. I find that reading other people’s journeys with new year resolutions inspires me to think a bit more about mine.
Like many, I’ve made lists of resolutions and failed miserably. Being a list-maker by nature, this is an ego-blow for sure! Perhaps the goals I set were too lofty in nature or too vast in quantity, either way I never achieved my resolutions with this strategy. I discovered that sharing my goals with others made me more accountable, so in 2015 I tried something new.
I jotted resolutions on a single post-it note (less is more, right?) then blogged about my goals. Throughout the year I was reminded that the whole world had access to my goals which made me try a little harder to make them happen. Somehow I lost the actual post-it note in the midst of my travels, but because I had been sharing my stories online, the resolutions were still vivid in my mind.
Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, I wasn’t 100% successful in what I wanted to achieve which left me feeling a bit deflated by year’s end. In December of 2015, I heard Dean Shareski speak at the VSTE Conference and his message of joy resonated with me so strongly, I knew this word would be my focus for the new year.
No resolutions.
No post-it note.
Just one word.
I carried that one word in my heart all year and it pulled me through some tough times. My mother-in-law passed away in the spring of 2016 after a long, hard-fought battle with colon cancer then my mom had a relapse in her lung cancer treatments later that same year. It was Joy that filled my soul and Joy that reminded me to seek the light on the darkest of days. I was even tapped as an honorary “Joy Ambassador” by Akilah Ellison with Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which was a highlight of my year.
As we rolled into 2017, it was time to choose a new word, a strong word, a word that would buffer my broken heart for events yet to come, yet bolster my spirit in celebrating milestone family events. It would be a year of mountains and valleys and I needed a word that would see me through it all.
Wow – what a self-fulfilling prophecy this word would become. My year was like a raging ocean with waves rising higher and crashing over, the turbulence catching me off-guard and riptides pulling me farther out to sea.
My year of joy quickly transformed into a year of sorrow.
My cousin died.
My uncle died.
My mom died.
Even my cat died.
I watched helplessly as one friend lost a father, another lost a mother; a dear friend lost a husband and another lost a child. I wanted to help with their grief, but was paralyzed by my own. I felt helpless. Overwhelmed. Despondent. Alone.
What helped me bounce back with resilience was support from my family, friends, coworkers, and my beloved Twitter PLN. Many of you reached out with kindness as you offered encouraging words, endless support, and permission to celebrate the beautiful moments in my year like my daughter graduating high school and heading off to college as well as our pre-planned family vacations.
If there’s one lesson I learned in 2017, it’s that life doesn’t stop for grief.
Resilience gave me endurance to create a new website, change my Twitter handle and write on a regular basis about tough topics that spotlighted my vulnerability as an educator, mom, daughter, and friend. I developed new friendships far and wide and felt that twinge of joy once again as I continued sharing acts of kindness with others.
Resilience gave me courage to revamp my instructional strategies as I embraced an innovator’s mindset and completely transformed our school’s traditional computer lab into an Innovation Lab. I enhanced my professional knowledge by reading books and participating in book studies, small group discussions and online MOOCs, inspired by the words of the authors below:
Resilience gave me strength to shine for teachers and students on days I would have rather hidden away in bed. It reminded me that others needed me to be there for them as well. I was not allowed to drown in the ocean waves that threatened to keep me down.
Resilience gave me time to mourn, then pushed me to rise above.
Resilience continues to keep me afloat through the changing tides and seasons yet to come.
As we turn the page into a new year, I was tempted to choose an easy word like breathe or sleep or even stillness for my #oneword2018, but another word keeps whispering in my ear:
I want to inspire you in the ways you’ve inspired me.
I want to inspire kindness – not just what I’m doing, but all the amazing things you are doing as well, in and out of the classroom.
I want to inspire risk-taking as I step out of my comfort zone and try new things, then sharing my lessons learned.
I want to inspire collaboration and collegiality as we work together, learn together, grow together.
But most of all, I want to inspire you to be all you can be for those children and adults who need you the most.
You have the power to make a difference in this world, planting seeds of inspiration with each person you meet.
Do what you love and you will inspire others along the way. It’s a natural cause-and-effect that will radiate from your soul!
Today is a brand new day in a brand new year. Let’s give it a go and make it the best year yet!


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