education, ITRT, reflection

Change is an Opportunity

Last week I had the honor of leading the closing keynote for the Clarke Innovation Conference. As several of you know, I’ve had “Keynote Presenter” on my professional bucket list for quite some time, ever since I got a taste of keynoting at a local conference several years ago.

The topic of my keynote was embracing change, a subject that is near and dear to my heart. There is so much fear and trepidation that accompanies change, both of which I’ve had to overcome this year. From transforming learning spaces to transforming mindsets, I’ve ventured into uncharted territory without a compass, without a guide, without the guarantee of success.

It’s been a year of highs and lows.

In this year of embracing change I’ve discovered a lot about myself and in the process I’ve grown in ways I never thought possible. I’ve also learned that while change is often unpredictable, it also creates opportunities that might not have existed before.

Change is an opportunity… to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. My year has overflowed with incredible eureka moments, from figuring out how to app smash green screen videos to guiding teachers and students in using programs like Flipgrid, Seesaw, and G-Suite to showcase student learning. I’ve collaborated with amazing educators to dive into coding, themed days, and project based learning and discovered the true meaning of #bettertogether.

Change is an opportunity… to face your fears and triumph over tribulation. Several times this year I have fallen flat on my face in a lesson, a presentation, or a conversation. In each situation I had a choice to make excuses or learn from the experience and apply that learning to making myself a better person. While the fear lingers below the surface at times, I’ve discovered just how resilient I can be when I give myself, and others, a bit more grace and compassion.

Change is an opportunity… to value vulnerability and inspire others. It’s one thing to say “Failure is an opportunity to learn;” it’s quite another to discuss your failures with complete strangers as you process the learning experience. By connecting with other educators on Voxer and joining book study groups like #PathtoSerendipity, I’ve learned that I’m not alone when those trees block my view. There’s always another hiker who has climbed the same mountain with tips on how I can reach the summit, too!

Change is an opportunity… to discover your passions and your purpose. For the past six years I have traveled a path of sharing kindness with others, but not always in the public eye. This was the year I decided to “cannonball in” as Tara Martin describes and embraced my calling as a writer, a kindness cultivator, a champion for all things good. I brought my passion for kindness into the classroom, collaborating with teachers on kindness lessons and passion projects, then climbed even higher to welcome news crews into our learning space, knowing that every story that is told is one more seed of kindness planted in this world.

Change is an opportunity… to embrace new challenges and soar to new heights. Next year, my role as technology integrator will shift as I move to supporting two schools instead of one. While this change was met with paradoxical joyful sadness from those with whom I serve, it made me realize just how blessed I am to have strong, lasting relationships with my current staff and students. In the words of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

As we wrap up our final week of school, I reflect on all the different ways I have been impacted by change this year and I’m simply astounded.

I never knew I was this strong.

I never knew I was this determined.

I never knew I could be so brave.

Change has been, and always will be, a constant in our lives. How we choose to embrace change is what sets us apart from others. Will we walk safely on the trail below seeking shelter from the storms or will we hike to the summit to watch the sunrise of a new dawn appearing above?

I’m lacing my sneakers and choosing the hike. How about you? We have a whole summer to ponder the possibilities and shift our mindsets for growth. Won’t you join the journey with me, too?

In the words of George Couros, change is an opportunity to do something amazing! What are we waiting for? Let’s go!


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education, kindness, reflection

A Jet Stream of Kindness

As we wind up another school year and reflect about the memory-making lessons we’ve shared throughout the year, we received a sweet surprise today!

In early October, we introduced our year-long kindness initiative by watching a YouTube video of an eight-year-old boy in Texas named Jet Stream Jax. In his video, he shared his passion for weather forecasting and storm chasing. Mesmerized by his passion, we were instantly drawn to his video clips. As Jet Stream Jax’s video continued, we were heartbroken to see the devastation that Hurricane Harvey caused to his community.

We dove into discussions of empathy and compassion as we listened to Jet Stream Jax’s call to action. He wanted to rebuild the playgrounds destroyed by the hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico. Partnering with Kids for Peace and The Great Kindness Challenge, Jet Stream Jax encouraged us to collect “Kind Coins” to help in the restoration. We did exactly that as we remixed relevance with our future kindness lessons.

Today, exactly two weeks after our Kindness Share Fair, we got to meet our inspiration!

Mrs. Madison and Mrs. Cross’ classes sat in wide-eyed wonder as we connected with Jet Stream Jax over FaceTime using my cell phone for portability. It was such a joy to see and talk with him virtually, even though he was several states away!

 

 

After making our introductions, he showed us their rebuilt playground which was more like an obstacle course from American Ninja Warrior. They even had a timer to track how fast they could complete the course which Jet Stream Jax did for us in 46 seconds! Wow!

He and his counselor, Barbara Greuner (who is also the author of the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind), showed us around their Peace Garden, holding up the rock they painted for our school. They also showed us a rock they received from Europe and one painted by Jet Stream Jax’s family.

 

Several students came to the front and chatted with Jax about their Kindness Passion Projects, trading stories of kindness and inspiration. One student remarked that she was born in Texas and while others shared their love for weather watching and video making.

 

 

We learned that the next playground to be built will be one in Puerto Rico, then we shared with Jax how we recently had flooding that wiped out several streets in our district. As if on cue, a roll of thunder could be heard and it was time for Jax to get inside his building for safety. We said our goodbyes and one student remarked, “I can’t believe we just met Jet Stream Jax! That was so cool!” He is already a celebrity in our eyes.

We took some time to reminisce about the Kindness Share Fair then talked about all the ways we can scatter seeds of kindness by sharing our story with others in person and on social media.

I pulled up my Twitter account and showed the students our Kindness Share Fair post which displayed all the likes, retweets, and comments. We scrolled through and read each one and discussed how far and wide our projects are reaching. Then we talked about the kindness notes a student found on the playground today, a sign that other students are joining in the fun of sharing kindness, too.

We wrapped up our lesson by crowning each student Kindness Kings and Queens, then took a class pictures to frame and display.  To quote a line from the play, Wicked, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Indeed we have.

 


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education, kindness, reflection

Kindness Share Fair 2018

Be the good you want to see in the world.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

We have repeated this mantra all year as our fourth and fifth grade students explored various aspects of empathy, compassion, and kindness. From collaborating on service projects for charity organizations to sharing kindness with strangers in other states, our students’ mindsets about how they can positively contribute to this world have shifted from passive consumers to engaged advocates.

In February, we shared with our students that they would create a Kindness Passion Project to showcase in the spring. We spent a class period discussing various people we could bless, different locations we could visit, and all sorts of ways to show kindness to others. By allowing our students complete choice in designing their projects, we learned more about their personal passions, hobbies, and interests, which helped us strengthen relationships in the process.

Best of all, we told students that they would not only create a kindness project, but they would implement it, too, because each student in the class would receive a $10 bill to fund their project! Oh, my goodness, if you could have been in our room the day we shared that news – they were in complete disbelief! Many students had never even held a $10 bill, much less spent that much money on someone else!

In March, students researched the costs of their materials, which was eye-opening indeed. By visiting retail websites like Target, Walmart, and Kroger, students quickly discovered how to be savvy shoppers to get the best deal for their limited budget. Using a planning guide that was glued into their Kindness Journals, students made notes of their purpose, materials, and procedure. It was a great way to integrate math and science skills into our lesson!

 

The week before Spring Break, I met individually with all forty students to share a “Kindness Conference,” discussing their Kindness Passion Projects in-depth and determine what support they would need from parents. Together we customized a parent/guardian letter, explaining the details of their project and the support they would need from an adult at home. In order for the $10 to be sent home with the child, parents/guardians had to commit by signature to helping their child; otherwise, we would use the $10 to purchase supplies and help students complete their projects during the school day. We made sure to provide equity so all children could participate in this event.

In April, students scattered kindness in the world as they implemented their Kindness Passion Projects, making notes of what they did and what happened next. We encouraged them to reflect on the experience, describing how it made them feel and if they would want to continue doing acts of kindness in the future. Later in the month, we taught the students how to create a Google Slides presentation to share with the world, documenting all the various steps of their Kindness Passion Projects. This was a great opportunity for students to communicate and collaborate as well.

 

On May 8, 2018 we opened the doors to our Innovation Lab for our second annual Kindness Share Fair, inviting parents, teachers, school board leaders, and community stakeholders to visit with our students and learn more about their Kindness Passion Projects. We had an incredible turnout with a nonstop flow of visitors as shown by the three pages of signatures in our Innovation Lab guest book!

As our guests arrived and mingled with students, the room was filled with a low buzz of chatter as students shared their projects with community members. Many of the comments were priceless:

“You don’t need to go to Disney World to find joy – there is plenty of it right here!”

“When I did this act of kindness, it was the best day of my entire life because I made a difference for someone else.”

“I know I can change the world. I just did!”

We had to locate a tissue box for two our of guests, as tears filled their eyes from listening to our students’ stories of kindness. See, this wasn’t just a “project for school”… Kindness Passion Projects were born in the hearts of our students. They were passionate about their recipient and the acts they chose to give. The students saw first-hand the impact of their actions as they stepped out of their comfort zones to show kindness to others.

One student blessed a school nurse because her Grandma had just passed away. Another student cleaned up litter after learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch during a science lesson. A third student left toys scattered around a playground then watched as they were discovered and enjoyed by other children.

We even had one student deliver pots of planted seeds to his teachers, only to discover that seeds of kindness really do bloom and scatter!

“You need to give them water and sunlight to grow.”

 

Three weeks later we see the results of that great advice!
We had animal lovers blessing veterinary hospitals, animal control shelters, and dog parks. We had children greeting neighbors for the first time with cups of cold lemonade and freshly baked cookies. Our recipients even shared their joy on social media with posts made on Twitter and Facebook!

 

 

(If you can’t stand the suspense and want to see our student projects now, CLICK HERE!)

As our guests visited with the students and learned about their projects, we also saw them enjoying the other stations we had available around the room:

  • Read About Kindness – Our carpet and pillows area showcased kindness books we’ve read this year so others could read and enjoy.
  • Kindness Raffle – Each guest received three raffle tickets when they arrived. At the Kindness Raffle table, all prizes were displayed with a cup beside them. Guests could choose which cup they wanted to put their ticket into for a chance to win that prize. All winners were notified by email or phone that afternoon!
  • Refreshments – Mrs. Cross and Grandpa Letter donated sweet treats for our celebration to share with our guests.
  • Call to Action – Post-it notes and pens were provided so guests could make a commitment to doing at least one act of kindness, sharing how our Kindness Passion Projects inspired them to Be the Good. Guests then added their notes to our Call to Action Wall in the front of the room. We will use these notes to create a Kindness quilt for our hallway!

 

All Kindness Passion Projects are displayed on our kindness website if you want to take a peek. You can also enjoy the video our district made of our special day. It was so empowering to show that no matter your age or disposition, you can truly impact someone else in a positive way by your words and actions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To show our students the power of using social media in a positive way, we are tracking this blog post to see how many people we can inspire with our projects. In June, we will view all the likes, retweets, and comments to gain a greater understanding of how our seeds of kindness are scattering around the world. Please use the hashtag #passionforkindness if you decide to share with your friends! The direct link to our kindness website is http://bit.ly/MESkindness.
We hope you enjoy our projects. We’ve had so much fun blessing others in creative ways! Thanks for sharing in our joy!

 

 

To view reflections from our 1st Annual Kindness Share Fair in 2017, visit http://bit.ly/kindsharefair. A special thanks to Renee’s Cheerios Memorial Fund for sponsoring our Kindness Passion Projects this year.


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family, grief, mom, reflection

On The Day My Mother Died



Today is the day my mother died.

The date has loomed on the calendar like the storm clouds of an impending storm, much like they did last year. The only difference between this year and last is knowing when the rain would fall and hearts would be shattered.

Several times in this year of mourning, I have tried to write about my mom’s final days and it’s been tough. Really tough. The emotions leave me raw and vulnerable, sometimes even rendering me speechless with no words to share.

But we all must learn to let go. We can’t keep hanging on to the past, no matter how we might try to change those events now frozen in time.

Today is the day my mother died.

__________________________________

One year ago today I awoke with a start, a panic of unknown proportions as I saw that I had missed several text messages from my mom’s husband, Bob, urging me to come to the hospital as quickly as I could.

I threw on jeans and a shirt, slid my feet into a pair of flip-flops and raced out the front door.

No makeup.

No contact lenses.

I didn’t even brush my hair.

See, when death taunts you each and every day, you must always be ready for the call. What I looked like didn’t matter a bit. There was a very real possibility my mom would be gone before I could make it to her bedside.

I drove to the hospital with tears flowing, knowing in my heart this was it. This was the day my mother would die. All the words had been spoken. All the love had been shared. It was time to say my final goodbye.

I was a wreck.

When I arrived, there was an empty parking space right at the entrance to the hospital. I parked and raced inside. It was truly like a scene from a movie: my long hair flowing behind me, my flip-flops flapping with each step as I ran with all my might. People walking in the halls stepped to the side, my path completely cleared like the parting of the seas.

I ran like I had never run before. I took the stairs so I didn’t have to wait on the elevator. I threw open doors and ran down the third floor, not caring for a moment who stared at me as I flew by.

Her door was partially shut. I literally slid into her room as I rounded the corner, completely out of breath and terrified at what I would discover.

She was there.

Sitting up in the bed.

Smiling.

My first words to my mother on the day of her death were, “What the hell, mom?!?”

Yes. You read that right. I actually cursed at my mother on the last day she was here.

Her laughter was priceless.

__________________________

 

I sat on the side of her bed and hugged her, telling her how happy I was to see her.

She was alive.

I made it.

She didn’t die without me.

We knew. Oh, how we knew. Today was the day.

May 4th.

May the 4th be with you.

 

_______________________

The night before, we had signed the hospice papers. I was packing up my things to watch my daughter’s final tennis match when Bob called me out of my mom’s room to add my signature to the page we had fought so hard to have. She would be removed from heart rate monitors and other unnecessary medical equipment so we could focus on easing her pain instead of monitoring her health.

As I crossed the Ts in my first and last name, the hospice nurse touched my arm. “Now that your mom is under our care I need to tell you… she doesn’t have much time.”

Shock.

Bewilderment.

“Excuse me… what?”

Not much time.

Death was already marching down the hall.

_________________________
Bob and I decided we would not stay the night. We wanted to give her the opportunity to pass away alone, should that be her choice. We knew of others who waited until that exact moment when everyone left the room to slip away; we didn’t want her to linger a moment longer than necessary.
My mom was in pain.
Her body was no longer working the way it should.
It was time to start letting go.
___________________________

On the day my mother died, she texted Bob at 3:58 AM. She had already lost the dexterity to hold a pen or cup and yet… in the wee hours of the night, she was able to locate her phone, unlock the passcode, open her text messages and tell Bob that she loved him.

This was his sign to come.

 

____________________________
The hospice nurse told us the night before that if we had family members that wanted to see my mom, they needed to come soon, preferably in the morning. So that’s what we did. We called our closest family members that evening and broke the news of her final demise.
The morning of my mother’s death began with a party.
Because… well, that’s just how we do things in our world.
My Dad and his girlfriend Cindy arrived. As he entered the room, my eyes filled with tears because, see, this is my full circle of life. These two people created me. There is a history between my mom and dad, with many years slashed in red, bound with turmoil, anger, and angst. Yet, with the passage of time, old wounds were healed, past grievances mended, and hearts reconciled.
 
When my Dad leaned in close to hug my mom, a part of my heart was healed as well.
_____________________________
My Uncle Buddy and Aunt Kathy arrived as did Bob’s son and we stood around chatting about old times and fun memories that made us laugh. I even had a high school friend whose father was in a room a few doors down pop her head in to say hi and we invited her to stay at our makeshift celebration of life.
My mom was hilarious, cracking one liners like a stand-up comedian on stage. How could she even find the words? How could she even tell the stories?
On the day my mother died, she gave us the gift of  joy.
_______________________________
After about an hour, her energy began to wane, her words began to slur, and her eyes started to shut like all the days before. It was her last hurrah. Each person in the room took their cues like a carefully orchestrated play, the final act halfway through. They hugged my mom, said their goodbyes, and left this space, knowing they would never see my mom again.
Bob and I remained the entire day.
______________________________
In the afternoon, the reverend arrived to check on her as she slept in the bed. He prayed over her, a final blessing bestowed on her frail, weak body.
He knew her time was near.
________________________________
Her favorite oncologist, Dr. K stopped by in the late afternoon, the shock on his face at her quick demise transparent for all to see. My mom loved Dr. K. She begged and begged for him to visit her, to call her, to talk to her, anything at all, but we never heard a response.
Until he showed up at her door.
On the day of her death.
I believe she couldn’t let go until she had one last moment with him as well.
________________________________
The nurses changed shifts. Those that had spent the day with us came back for a final goodbye. My mom adored these nurses. They adored her. They took such amazing care of her during her brief stay. One nurse even brought in her baby boy cradled on her hip:
“I believe when someone dies, a part of their spirit lives on in those who are near. I want my son to soak up her spirit. There is so much love and joy in this room.
 
 ________________________________
When the sun started to set, my cousin Amy arrived and she had an opportunity to say goodbye as well. She stayed for a bit as light turned to darkness, then rain started to fall.
Bob realized the front doors would close at 9:00 PM and we would have to exit the back of the hospital then walk all the way around the perimeter of the facility to get to our cars later. He decided to move his car to the back entrance so we wouldn’t be drenched when it was time to leave.
Somehow we knew we wouldn’t be staying the night.
Somehow we knew we would have to carry all her things home.
Somehow we knew.
_________________________________
A little after 8:00 PM, I was overcome with emotion.
I knew.
 
This was it.
Through my sudden tears, I asked Amy to leave, a rush of apologies and incoherent sentences trying to explain the urgency of the moment. She quickly said goodbye with tears in her eyes and then there were two.
Me.
My mom.
Together.
_________________________________
 
For the first time in her entire 23 month battle with cancer, I told my mother she was not allowed to die.
 “No way did we come THIS far for you to die when Bob is gone.”
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
“You can hold on just a little longer, Mama. C’mon now. Just a few minutes more.”
I stared at the clock above the doorway in complete panic mode, praying desperately that Bob would return before she took her last breath. The minutes ticked by as I held her hand and watched her face, willing her with my mind to hang on until he arrived.
I don’t think I could have survived the guilt had she left this world with me by her side and not him.
__________________________________
When Bob walked through that doorway, I felt such a relief in my soul, that I knew God was with me the entire time. Her time was here, but so were we.
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
 
__________________________________
 
Nurses arrived again, but this time it was to unhook the high-flow oxygen tube and replace it with an oxygen mask.
We watched the inside of the mask cloud with her breath, then clear when she inhaled.
We kept waiting for the breath we knew would cease to come.
__________________________________
Bob held her right hand.
I held her left.
We sat and waited, both whispering to my mom how much we loved her.
___________________________________
She took a breath.
Exhaled.
Clouded mask.
Nothing more.
____________________________________
9:01 PM.
May 4, 2017
She’s gone.
___________________________________
This year of firsts without my mom has been heartbreaking. We tried our best to make her final days complete with celebrations of love, but there were still so many milestones that carried on without her.
How does one heal a broken heart?
 
By loving those still here every chance they get.
Never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them. Don’t turn down an offer to connect with an old friend. Live your life to the fullest, embracing each and every moment with the joy and exuberance of childlike wonder.
Make memories. Be silly. Do things that will create funny stories that will be shared for years to come.
Be passionate. Be kind. Be you.
Love yourself.
Love others.
And know that your life has meaning for those around you.
Be the star that sparkles in the darkness.
And when the darkness comes your way?
Shine even brighter.

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ITRT, kindness

Leader By Action

Last week at our Region 1 Superintendent’s Professional Development Series, I had the privilege of hearing Tom Murray speak to district leaders in our surrounding area, highlighting the 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools from the book Learning Transformed that he co-wrote with Eric Sheninger. It’s always a joy to reconnect with Tom; he is approachable and genuine in his sentiments and a great presenter with an inspiring message to share. In fact, we were so excited to see him again that we crowded around to snap our customary “We are so happy to have you here!” selfie at the conclusion of his presentation:

One of the slides in his presentation lingered with me throughout the week and gave me pause: Am I a Leader by Title or a Leader by Action?

I began my journey as an educator twenty-one years ago. Since that time, I’ve held many titles:

  • Second grade teacher
  • Third grade teacher
  • Fourth grade teacher
  • Differentiation Specialist
  • Instructional Technology Resource Teacher
Just last month I added another title to that list: Mechanicsville Elementary Teacher of the Year.
I’ve also held other titles throughout the past two decades:
  • Secretary
  • Assistant Manager
  • Small Business Owner
  • Singer
  • Writer
  • Blogger
  • Screencaster
  • Course Instructor
  • Webmaster
  • Key Communicator
  • Communication Secretary
  • Grade Level Chair
  • Committee Chair
  • Social Media Conference Chair
  • Conference Presenter
  • Keynote Presenter
  • Licensed Administrator
(and I can add author to that list soon thanks to Shelley and Dave Burgess!)
Then I reflect on my non-professional life and the titles I’ve held there:
  • Daughter
  • Cousin
  • Aunt
  • Sister
  • Wife
  • Mom
  • Friend
Each title has its own set of qualifiers and each is prominent in its own right. But does a title alone make me a leader to inspire others to learn more, dream more, become more?
In one word: No.
Leaders by Title rely on the history of their position to set the trajectory of their path. Their title affords certain privileges automatically and they work within these parameters. They usually have other people who fall under their realm of management and dutifully provide direction to set the course ahead. The work gets done, and often done well, but when the task is complete the work ends. Personal growth is not a priority from a task that is guided by a Leader by Title.
There are some Leaders by Title who take their position to the extreme and abuse the automatic rights given to their position. They invoke fear in others to get the work done or, even worse, dictate the mandates for work then take all the credit, never offering so much as a “thank you” to those who gave of their time, energy, and knowledge. These types of leaders are the ones who unknowingly undermine culture, making rifts that eventually split and divide.
Leaders by Action create their own legacy. While their role specifies the path, each day is defined by what they do and whom they serve. They are willing to get in the muck and the mire with others and redefine their role depending on circumstances that arise. They uplift. They inspire. They empower. They model true leadership for others and encourage them along the way. They celebrate the accomplishments of others and give credit where credit is due.
Yesterday I attended our district’s Arts & Science Festival, an annual celebration of the amazing work the students in our district create through the year. This event is a long-standing tradition in our community and for those who have lived here a long time, it becomes a family reunion of sorts. No matter where you walk, you will most likely see a familiar face smiling back.
This event would not be possible without the tireless dedication of many Leaders by Action. Dozens of teachers and administrators have spent the past few weeks compiling student projects, printing labels, creating personalized letters for parents, all in preparation for this event. Some spent late nights double-checking digital projects, making sure nothing was misspelled and all the links were active. Friday afternoon, those same volunteers delivered all the projects to one location, set up displays, taped artwork to walls, and created interactive areas for independent exploration.
From the hours of 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Leaders by Action arrived and volunteered their time (on a Saturday!) to do the work that most definitely didn’t align with their role as a Leader by Title.
They greeted guests at the door with a smile.
They distributed maps of the school and guided parents to student projects.
They arrived early to practice with students before their performances.
They walked the halls and interacted with guests.
They were visible. They were smiling. They showed us by their actions the joys of servant leadership.
Since my youngest son had a soccer game that morning and my oldest son had plans for the afternoon, we went to the Arts & Science Festival in the middle of the day. I was there as a mom, but as many of you know, we never quite lose our “teacher title” when out in public.
Both boys had projects displayed in the festival, so we meandered through the school, enjoying the work of other students as we walked. We were awestruck by the gallery of greatness displayed by so many students in our district.
As we made our way back to the main lobby, I saw one of my students running towards me. The smile on her face could light up a room and the surprise in her voice when she caught my eye was priceless. She embraced me in a hug and turned her head to call to her mom.
“Mommy! Look! It’s Mrs. Letter! She’s my kindness teacher!”
Kindness teacher.
 
It’s a title I never included in my list because, up until that moment, I hadn’t even considered it a possibility.
Kindness teacher. 
 
Leader by Action.
Me.
As we finished our embrace and she walked back to her mom, I heard her add as an afterthought, “Oh, and she teaches technology, too.”
Her final comment made me laugh out loud. It also made me realize what title I hold in this little girl’s heart. Being the “kindness teacher” ranked higher than my title of technology integrator, one I’ve proudly held for the past ten years.
WOW.
Let us all embrace the qualities of a Leader by Action and redefine our role to others. Don’t allow your title to limit your potential for greatness! Shine in your skills and inspire others with words and actions each day!
Each and every one of us can be a Leader by Action – dive in and lead the way!

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kindness

The Sweetest Surprise

Today I received the sweetest surprise! My doorbell rang and I saw an Amazon box sitting on my front porch. I was a little perplexed because I couldn’t remember ordering anything, but my name was on the label, so I went ahead and opened the box.

Oh my goodness! Inside the box was a sparkled, spotted gift bag shimmering in silver and grey with a perfectly tied bow at the top. Who on earth would send me a gift… and why?

It’s not my birthday.

It’s not my anniversary.

It’s not Mother’s Day, Teacher Appreciation Week, or even Christmas.

I stood there for a moment, savoring the anticipation, pondering what could be inside and who might be the giver. I almost didn’t open the bag because the thrill of suspense was so great!

When was the last time YOU received a surprise? No, not a birthday or Christmas gift. A surprise. A completely unexpected, unanticipated, little something just for you with no holiday or season attached. Did you feel a range of emotions? Did it make you smile? Did it make you want to do something nice for someone else?

I absolutely LOVE surprises, but they are few and far between. We all lead such busy lives and it’s easy to just go about our business assuming people know we appreciate them.

Today’s surprise today filled me with pure delight. I immediately felt childlike joy, knowing that someone, somewhere was thinking of me.

But who? And why?

It was then that I read the note attached to the bag.


It was a gift from a dear friend, Courtney, who used to work at my school several years ago. We’ve kept in touch through social media and even met for lunch last summer. Her note thanked me for our friendship and inspiration as a kindness ambassador.

What?? I was floored! She sent me a gift for being… kind? What in the world? Then I had to laugh at myself because I could hear her words in my ear: “Umm, that’s what YOU do, you know. You give gifts to people for being kind.”

I have to admit, it is much easier to give than to receive!

I carefully untied the bow and peeked inside the bag, my heart already bursting at this random act of kindness so thoughtfully chosen for me. Then I felt tears in my eyes as I saw what was inside.

I immediately thought of Todd Nesloney, who purchased this book as a surprise for his mom, but it was delivered after she passed away. Then I thought of the blog post I wrote back in November, reflecting on the ways we can be an umbrella in someone else’s rain.

Just yesterday I shared reflections about my mom and how the date marked 11 months since her passing. With each new month, I am reminded of loss, grief, and resilience to keep pressing on.

I opened the book and started to read, my excitement growing with each page turned. It was when I got near the end of the book that I realized this is the exact message our students (and we!) need to hear:

 

 

“Maybe I can only do small things.
But my small things might join small things other people do.
And together, they could grow into something big.”

Friends, your small things matter. Oh, they matter so much! This thoughtful gift from my friend reminded me of my purpose and her umbrella of kindness did indeed shelter me from the storms of my heart.

Go out there and be the good. Do your small acts of kindness and know that you are scattering seeds that will bloom in people’s hearts brighter and bolder than you can even imagine! And when your small things and my small things and their small things all join together… this is what changes the world!

Be blessed and share a surprise with someone you know. I guarantee it will absolutely make their day just as this surprise made mine!


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grief, mom, reflection

11 Months

 

Today marks 11 months since I sat on my mom’s bedside, held her hand, and watched helplessly as she took her last breath.

11 months since eyes that sparkle,

11 months since squeals of delight;

11 months of silent stillness,

11 months to write.

This time last year was the beginning of the end. My mom was in her final battle of a two-year war with lung cancer, trying desperately to fight with every ounce of strength in her soul. She was taking immunotherapy in a last-ditch effort to minimize the cancerous growth invading her vital organs, but with each treatment she endured, it made her body weaker and harder to breathe.

When my mom had her scheduled appointment in mid-April, the doctor recommended that she go straight to the hospital. “I’m a little concerned about your breathing,” he said. “I think you need to get that checked out right now.”

So my mom dutifully followed the doctor’s orders, her husband, Bob, driving her directly to the hospital following the appointment. Everyone expected her to have a breathing treatment or two, then to be released and go about her way.

My mom never returned home.

I started to write about our journey, even as death was slowly slipping from possibility to reality. It was a story told with words and photographs, capturing the turmoil of “not so great news” mingled with kindness, love, and memories.

As one week in the hospital lapsed into two, and my mom’s condition diminished from bad to worse, I took photos. Lots and lots of photos. I wanted to capture every memory possible.

I took photos as friends and family visited with my mom. I took photos of flowers delivered to her room. I took photos of her so I could hold on to one more smile, one more moment of joy. I took photos of us together.

On Monday of her final week, my mom suffered unimaginable pain. Her throat was closing in, every swallow “like rubbing alcohol poured over an open wound.” Those were the doctor’s words because at that point, my mom couldn’t speak.

Actually, she couldn’t do much at all as her movements were hindered from the pain medicine and her lucid moments were becoming nonsensical. She had lost the dexterity to hold a cup in her hands so we were feeding her tiny ice cubes from Sonic and hoping she wouldn’t choke in the process. We finally had to resort to swabbing the inside of her mouth with a small sponge soaked in water.

The evening before, I asked if she wanted me to sing to her, reaching for an old hymnal I had used in my days of singing with a church choir. She closed her eyes and nodded, so I sang. By the time I finished the second verse of Amazing Grace, she had fallen back to sleep.
It was the first and last time I ever sang to my mother, just me and her. It’s a memory I will never forget.

That Monday was a horrible, horrendous day. The doctors told us there wasn’t much more they could do, but hospice couldn’t take over until we agreed to have my mom moved to another facility for care. We were at a crossroads, an impasse. My mom was on high flow oxygen, maxed out to the greatest level she could endure. To remove her from this machine for transport would most likely end in fatality. They wanted us to make the final decision.

We were caught in the quagmire of one department committed to helping people heal and renew with the other committed to helping people die with dignity. All the while, my mom suffered in the bed before our eyes. It was by far one of the most excruciating days I have experienced as a child caring for a parent.

That evening, as I was about to leave for the night, not knowing if I would ever see my mom again, she sat up in bed as if struck by a bolt of lightning. She opened her eyes and lifted her shaking hand, pointing at the notepad and pen lying on the table near her bed.

My mom was always a note taker. As a secretary, she had taken countless notes of tasks to complete, documents to preserve, and general notes of this and that. She loved little spiral journals with colorful pens that could easily glide across the paper. She was extremely proud of her meticulous handwriting.

Over the years I’ve received several letters from my mom. Some were penned in anger and frustration; others filled with passionate perspectives she needed to share.

But my mom couldn’t write anymore. She couldn’t even hold a pen.

And yet… there she was. Sitting straight up in bed, pointing to her pen and paper. I opened the journal to a blank page and uncapped a pen. She grasped it, her hands continuing to shake as she scrawled lines across the page.

I leaned over to catch a glimpse of what she was writing, still in shock and amazement that she was sitting up with the pen in her hand, when I realized she was actually writing words. They were disjointed and repeated, the pain meds and cancer-ridden body struggling to get the thoughts on paper, but they were there.

Words.

Real words.

With real purpose.

My mom was writing one final letter to me.

 

 

 

 
“I love you more than anything, if these are my last words. Love, your Mama.”
 
This is when I broke.
I hugged her and thanked her for being my mom and choosing to bring me into this world so many years ago. She whispered three simple words as I took another selfie with her. My heart was paradoxically broken and complete.
These were the last words my mom ever wrote on paper.
 
Three days later she was gone.
 
Today, as I mark the milestone of 11 months on the calendar, I remember the power of words and the incredible gift of photos to capture all of life’s moments for generations to come.
Never underestimate the gifts you have to share with your loved ones and the world around you.
Take your photos.
Write your letters.
Make sure people know they are loved.
For these are the moments that matter.
 
These are the moments that live on.

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kindness

Selfie Sparkle

Today was an absolutely gorgeous day, a much-needed reprieve from the dreary, cold, overcast weather we’ve endured for several months. With temperatures rising into the low 80’s, I couldn’t wait to spend some time after work at one of my favorite parks.

I sat on the weathered, wooden bench that overlooks the lake and pulled out a book to read, feeling the breeze dance across my face as the rays of the sun sparkled across the water nearby. With each word I read, I was pulled away from the stress and strife of life and lifted up with hope and positivity. As I finished one chapter and started the next, I heard the jingle of a dog collar and looked up. To my right there was a family of three, leaning over the wooden rail, watching the fish and turtles swim in the lake. To my left was a lady with her black dog trying to take a selfie with the lake behind her.

I watched her for a moment, my gaze hidden behind my sunglasses. She was kneeling beside her pet, her phone in her left hand; her right hand holding the dog leash close. She smiled towards her outstretched arm, then tried to get her dog to look at the camera, too. The dog sat obediently, but looked this way and that, mesmerized by the sights and smells of the park.

Without hesitation, I closed my book and left my bench, a smile on my face as I approached the girl and her dog. “Want me to take your picture?” She looked up and returned my smile with a genuine “Thank you!” as she handed me her phone.

She kneeled again and I got into position, my role shifting from observer to photographer. I took several photos of her and her dog with the lake shimmering in the background. “I hope one of these works out,” I replied as I handed her phone back. As I returned to my bench, she shouted, “You really made my day! I am so happy you did that for me!” The gratitude in her tone was so pure and authentic, it made me shine a little brighter than I had before.

As I sat back on the bench and picked up my book, I started to laugh at the title that stared back at me. Perhaps it will give you a giggle as well!

Today’s random act of kindness may not seem like much to some, but I know it meant a lot to this gal and her dog. Sometimes the best way to take a selfie is to have someone do it for you.

What ways have you stepped out of your comfort zone to help a stranger in need? Comment below and share your stories so we can inspire the world!


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education, ITRT

Innovation Lab Update

Several people have reached out to me on Twitter and Facebook inquiring about our Innovation Lab and its transformation. I realized, while I have spotlighted several activities throughout the year, I have yet to write an overview of our journey thus far.

I became a technology integrator ten years ago, assigned to an elementary school in the same district I attended as a child. I have been in the same room, in the same school, for all of this time. Over the years, it has been a huge struggle for me to get others to view this space as “our room” as my desk was in the back and the room was filled with heavy tables, chairs, and laptops. Because this was the room I was assigned, people viewed it as “Mrs. Letter’s Lab”, not a shared working space. When teachers wanted to collaborate with me, they brought their students to this space because it was easier than rolling a huge, metal cart across our open-campus school with sidewalk cracks and uneven terrain.

Every lesson used a laptop.

Every student sat in a chair.

Every chair faced the front of the room.

I died a slow death with each lesson I taught.



Ten years ago, “innovation” wasn’t the focus as it is now. I struggled to adjust to this new structure of instruction – wanting to support technology integration efforts of others in a space that never shifted, with a room design that was static and stagnant.

When I was a classroom teacher, my room was fluid. If I wanted small group work, we moved desks around and made it happen. When we had a camping day as a culmination for our “Where the Red Fern Grows” unit, we pushed the desks to the side, brought in pillows, sleeping bags, and flashlights, and told spooky stories while “roasting” Smores over our pretend campfire.

Camping Day in Mrs. Letter’s Classroom (Memphis, TN – 2002)
I was that teacher. I did whatever it took to engage my students in learning and make my classroom the space that I wanted as a student. I would dress up as a pioneer. I would transform my students into museum tour guides. I created learning experiences that went beyond the textbook because I wanted to cultivate a love of learning in my students in the same way my 6th grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Dalton, did for me.
She had a plastic bubble.
In the middle of her room.
You could read, write, or draw in the bubble, but had to earn the right to go inside.
That’s all the incentive I needed to become a teacher.
But that was then and this is now. I changed roles from classroom teacher to technology integrator and this was my new reality. Four walls and a door. Twelve tables, twenty-four chairs. I taught my lessons, walking in and out of each row, monitoring laptop screens from the back, but I knew this wasn’t ideal for learning.
It wasn’t ideal for my students.
 
It wasn’t ideal for me.
 
Since a large part of my job is providing teachers with professional development, I wanted a space that could attend to their needs as well, in a cozy environment – not one with stark, white, cement walls and immobile furniture. I needed more. They needed more.
Two years ago I took a risk. I started a GoFundMe campaign to change up the back corner of Lab 1 so it was more appealing for teachers. Inspired by the #StarbucksMyRoom hashtag, I designed this space, dreaming big. Gone was my teacher desk – I wanted bar height tables and chairs! A coffee maker! A bookshelf with new, relevant books by up-and-coming authors (not the books that were written decades before and collecting dust in my garage.) Could I even get a sofa? Who puts a sofa in a computer lab?
Apparently me.
 
Bar height table and coffeemaker (My Zumba instructor later donated a Keurig to the Tiny Tech Cafe!)

 

The start of our Lending Library – always accepting donations!
Doesn’t everyone have a sofa in their computer lab?
With the financial support of friends, family, and community stakeholders, we opened our Tiny Tech Cafe September 6, 2016 and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers were now stopping in to grab a cup of coffee or take a quick break in their day and almost always these resulted in conversations with one another.
My relationships with teachers grew as did my desire to make this happen for students, too.
Digital logo I designed for our Tiny Tech Cafe
I even painted our own Tiny Tech Cafe canvas!
In Spring of 2017, I applied for a Creative Classroom Grant with the Hanover Education Foundation to transform the remainder of the room, so that we could have flexible seating options and resources at our fingertips whenever we needed them. (Do you know how many times I had to run down the hall and ask someone if we could borrow pencils, paper, and clipboards as we worked with technology? We needed basic supplies in here, too!)
Our grant was fully funded (with matching funds from my school) and we were on our way! So exciting! Unfortunately it was a painstakingly slow process to get everything in place according to the vision and timeline. When school began in September, I was still waiting for bulletin boards to be removed, shelves to be added, and stools to be put together. There was no official “Welcome to Our Innovation Lab” grand opening because… well… it was, and is, a constant work in progress!
But we had portable tables and, for me, that was enough to start diving in!
Students enter “polling booths” to vote on SCA Officers
Students learning about hurricanes and Kind Coins from Jet Stream Jax in TX
As the year progressed, we started building out the room. We purchased a green screen app for our iPads and made arrangements to keep the iPads in the Innovation Lab so access was equitable and convenient. We even created a coloring poster and invited students, teachers, and parents to work together to make it come to life so a part of them would be displayed in our room.
Creating green screen winter haiku videos
Adults and children coloring during Open House

 

Our finished poster – “Create”
We put velcro tabs on the wall and added 12 x 12 Lego plates so the traditional “Lego Wall” could actually be dismantled into individual work stations using the Legos we inherited from a former Legos club.
Each green tile can be removed from the wall to use anywhere in the room.
Mrs. Tapper and I exploring Lego pattern building during our Mardi Gras Makerspace (Teacher PD)
We added a recording studio for students who were self-conscious about recording themselves. We added carpet. Pillows. I got a great end-of-season sale on patio furniture cushions and purchased 6 scoop bucket seats for $35 (which, by the way, are a hit for all students K-5, no matter what that weight limit says on the box!)
Our corner recording studio
Students can zip themselves inside the recording station to record!
Students working in small groups around the room in the scoop bucket seats
“If you build it, they will come.” I clung to this Field of Dreams mindset, hoping others might see the potential this space could have for ALL students, ALL teachers, ALL disciplines. I started shifting the types of lessons I offered with teachers, guiding them through problem-solving design processes and small group station rotations with students leading the way.
The Innovation Lab wasn’t just a shift of space; it was a mind shift as well.
In February, our bulletin boards were removed from the walls and shelves added in their place which completed our makerspace area. Now we could store our bags and crates of supplies into neatly labeled containers that were easy to reach.
Materials organized, labeled, easy-to-reach
Makerspace ready for use with shelves for project creations!
Our Innovation Lab has 100% flexibility in design, in purpose, even in scheduling. We created a website for our space and distributed magnets with the website URL to all teachers so at the click of a mouse they can add their name to a Google Sheets spreadsheet and reserve the lab for whatever need they have. They can also use this website to request supplies, borrow a book from our lending library, or be inspired by lesson ideas of others.
Innovation Lab Website with tabs for pages across the top

 

Our Innovation Lab banner displayed outside the door
I’m proud to see all the ways this space is being used. We’ve had theme days like Talk Like a Pirate Day with back-to-back lessons complete with station rotations. We’ve shared in collaborative learning experiences between classes as older students support the learning of younger students. We’ve coded robots, designed three dimensional shapes with 3D Doodler pens, and created public service announcement commercials about why you should Save the Bay.
Our students are at the helm of their learning experiences. They are teaching us how to create videos with iMovie and new uses for cardboard rolls and tape. They are solving real world problems and developing compassion and empathy in the process. They are offering suggestions on how to make things flow better and sharing their expertise with others. They are even taking ownership of JOY with Jubilant Outcries of Yes!
For those who are worried about the loss of testing space, have no fear. In less than five minutes time I can transition this learning space back into a traditional computer lab complete with twenty-four laptops, twenty-four chairs and six stationary tables. (Yes, I have actually timed myself to see how fast I could go!)
Now we have paper.
And pencils.
And clipboards.
And the moment that testing is complete, we can get back to learning the way learning is intended.
The way we need it to be.
 
———————————————————
Connect with Tamara on Twitter (@tamaraletter) or email (tletter@hcps.us). We also welcome visitors, so please contact her to set up a date/time if interested in stopping by! A special thanks to Dave Burgess, George Couros, Katie MartinTom Murray and Kayla Delzer for their innovative ideas and inspiration that fueled the fire for change. We are definitely better together!
For more information our journey in creating this Innovation Lab, visit the blog posts below!
September 2017
 
October 2017
December 2017
February 2018
March 2018
Celebrating Seuss (Video Promo)

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education, grief, ITRT, kindness

Kindness Rocks for Parkland

 

There are times in life where we can’t begin to imagine the global impact of our actions. We are focused on our one moment in time, doing what we do, thinking, “That’s it! Mission accomplished. On to the next thing.”

We have no idea how far our seeds can scatter.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Random Acts of Kindness week (#RAKweek2018), a global celebration of kindness promoted by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. As part of our year-long “Passion for Kindness” initiative, we decided that Valentine’s Day would be a perfect day to dive into a new project – scattering seeds of kindness throughout our school to remind people that they matter.

We transformed our Innovation Lab into two work stations:

Kindness Posters/Hearts of Gratitude – Students could create kindness posters to display around the school or write notes of gratitude for staff members

Kindness Rocks – Students could paint inspiring messages on rocks to hide around campus to be discovered by others

Our planning caught the eye of our local news station, WTVR Channel 6 news, and Rob Cardwell visited our lesson to showcase it on their Building Better Minds segment. It was an exciting day for us as we have continually expressed to our students the importance of sharing their story with the world and using digital communication for good. Now we had an opportunity to make it happen for REAL!

We began our lesson by revisiting the progress on Jet Stream Jax’s Peaceful Hearts Playground, as our students had donated coins in the fall for the Kind Coins campaign to rebuild school playgrounds following the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We zoomed in to the photos Barbara Gruener provided of their kindness rocks and peeked at her Flipgrid to see an example of the messages they painted on their rocks. We also talked a bit about how kindness rocks have been used in our local community with #rvarocks on Twitter and RVA Rocks Facebook Group.

The students spent the next forty minutes creating and collaborating; it was a delight to show our visitors how seamlessly we incorporate our state-mandated content of reading and writing with character development, social emotional learning (SEL) skills, and the 5C’s of successful life skills. Our rocks were set aside to dry and we made plans to hang our posters and share our hearts of gratitude later in the week.

 

 

 

That afternoon the world learned about the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Another school shooting.

Flashbacks to Sandy Hook.

#26acts.

Now there are 17 more.

I. Can’t. Believe. This. Is. Happening.

_____________________________________

As an educator, my sweet little world of kindness came to a crashing halt.

Again.

I wrote a bit about my feelings in my I Can post as the tragedy swirled in my brain. The next day it was business as usual in my elementary school, but I felt the weight of the horror pressed against me, a dark cloud suffocating the joy from the day before. I wanted to do something, anything, to share kindness with this school community who would be forever changed by the events on Valentine’s Day. But what on earth could we do to possibly help them?

Kindness rocks.

I brought the idea to Mrs. Madison and her students to see if they would be interested in donating their beautifully painted kindness rocks to another school that might need a little reminder of hope and love and joy. They readily agreed.

We did not talk about the tragedy at hand; but rather, we talked about the impact kindness has when it is scattered and shared with others. We imagined what it would be like for others to find our rocks and how they could keep the rock as a reminder of kindness or hide it again for someone else to find.

“Can we make more rocks, Mrs. Letter? So we can send them some AND keep some here?”

More rocks.

More paint.

Hope and love and joy.

 

_____________________________________


Say their names” was a constant whisper on my heart. I decided to make seventeen of our rocks memorial rocks, one for each of the lives lost on that day. As I added their names to my bullet journal, I lifted up a prayer for each of the families whose pain was greater than I could bear.

On the back of each kindness rock, I added their names then wrote encouraging messages on the remaining rocks. I captured each rock using Flipgrid (Code: 5ea50c) so anyone who finds a rock with #kind4MSD on the back could leave a video response in return.

 

 

My assistant principal, Mr. Davis, posted the Flipgrid on our school’s Facebook page, which caught the attention of my district. They, in turn, created a video compilation of the memorial rocks to post on our district social media sites.

MES Facebook Post

 

HCPS Facebook Post

The next morning, our rocks were mentioned on the news.

By a different news station than the one who had filmed our lesson the week before.

The seeds of kindness are scattering.

_____________________________________
 

In times of complete and utter helplessness, we often feel paralyzed, like there is nothing we can to do make a difference, no action we can provide that will make things better. I felt that immobilization for a solid week before I realized that all the tools I needed to show compassion were with me the entire time.

Kind words.

Kind actions.

A heart to comfort the pain of another.

We are sending out our kindness rocks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this week in hopes that when they arrive, someone at the school will hide them around campus to be discovered by students and staff. We will check our #kind4MSD hashtag periodically to see if there are any updates or posts from others or perhaps it will spark more kindness rocks to be created and shared around the world!

Be the good.

Share in kindness.

Inspire others.

_____________________________________

On Tuesday, March 6, WRIC Channel 8 News in Richmond, Virginia, showcased our kindness rocks during their 6pm broadcast. On Wednesday, March 14, WTVR Channel 6 News showcased our kindness rocks during their Building Better Minds segment at 6am and 6pm.

Follow Tamara on Twitter or connect with her Passion for Kindness Facebook group to join in the fun of sharing kindness. Tamara is also writing a book about kindness with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. to share her kindness journey with the world!

For more information on kindness rocks read this post by Rachel Moravec, visit #rvarocks on Twitter, or connect with RVA Rocks on Facebook.


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