Year 4 in the books

Today I said goodbye to another year and another group of students. It was a bit difficult as I said goodbye to many students I'll miss after our move. Though this was my most challenging year as a teacher, it was also the most gratifying. Here's why:

I teach English. It's not a subject area most kids look forward to because they see it as boring, irrelevant, or it's a subject they've struggled with before. Each year I work hard to try and "win" kids over and prove them that writing and reading IS relevant, can be exciting, and is an area in which they can succeed. Kids are a tough sell sometimes; nonetheless, each year I manage to change a few minds--but this year, I feel like I've changed more than a few. What's shocking is many in this group of students refused to complete assignments, didn't participate in class discussions, failed a portion of the course, and simply acted like they were too cool for English. It was maddening. I felt like I spent hours contacting parents. I gave many pep talks to kids after school. I wrote letters encouraging struggling students. I made more modifications and accommodations than I ever have. I did hands on projects with kids and let them have choices. It was exhausting. And many times I felt like nothing I did helped some kids. As a teacher, you sometimes don't see the fruits of your labor until the end of the year or much later down the line. Today I realized my efforts, no matter how exhausting, were worth it.

In the past few weeks I've received a few emails inviting me to read and follow some of my 9th grade students' (and former students'---I think 9 total) blogs. Of course, I've accepted each one and have tried to read and respond to all of them. Some of these same kids even started a writing group. They call themselves "Pen on Paper" and they've already had one meeting on their own and have another next week! They created a blog to share writing ideas and to stay in touch with one another over the summer. Some of these same kids gave up an entire Saturday a few weeks ago to attend a writing festival at UNK I helped organize. As an English teacher, I'm "geeked out" about this. To watch your students fall in love with writing, continue writing long after class in a public manner, and work to hone their skill is indescribable. Of course, letters and gifts from kids are nice, but watching kids fall in love with my subject area is far better! I'm excited to follow these young writers via their blogs; I hope their passion isn't squelched by other teachers, other students, or the numerous state tests they'll take throughout their high school years.

I'll leave you with a few photos of some writing and art work a few students left on my car today. It was cute because before 1st hour, they came up to me and asked if they could chalk my car!

If you can't read the text on the windows, one phrase says "I'm all geeked out"--this is one I frequently use when referring to things I enjoy.

The back window reads, "'member when we killed word real?'" --during our unit on word choice, we make a list of words we're going to bury and never use in essays again. These girls came up with the word "real" as in, "that pizza was real good..." they were "real" proud of that one.

Again...proud of their artwork :)


Remaining disciplined this summer

Tomorrow will be my last day working with FCA and this particular group of kids. It's been a huge step out of my comfort zone as I don't feel qualified to lead kids (or anyone!) in Bible studies. This year I've been humbled and have learned to rely on God to cover my sense of inadequacy and to speak through me to minister to kids. So I've been poring over scripture tonight trying to find the "right" piece to sum up the year and to encourage them to remain disciplined throughout the summer to continue to grow in their faith. I've felt led to share 2 Peter 1: 3-21 with the kids for the following reasons:
  • First: I love the reminder Peter gives us early in this---God's given us everything we need to live a life that is glorifying to Him and He's given us great and precious promises that allow us to share with God's divine nature---to commune and associate with the maker of the universe and escape the difficulties of this world caused by man.
  • Second: Considering all God has given us, we should "make every effort to respond to God's promises" by "supplementing our faith" with quality character, learning more about God, developing endurance, and loving others. It's easy in the summer to let our faith take a backseat to relaxing, hanging out with friends, and enjoying a break from structure. But Peter reminds us in vs. 5-7 that we must not grow complacent. We must work hard to supplement our faith because the more we grow, the more useful we can be for Christ. We must remember God's promises and sacrifices in order to avoid growing stagnant in our faith.
  • Finally: Verses 12-21 are a nice conclusion to the year. Sometimes I feel like we talk about the same things over and over again each week in FCA. But, just like athletes have to review fundamentals of their sport each day in practice, believers must have constant reminders of the basics/foundations of our faith so we can stand firm and share these with others. I love Peter's urging to pay close attention to scripture because "their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place." FCA doesn't meet in the summer, but that's no reason for our kids to not continue delving into the Word of God. Reading the Bible is a direct connection to God and is our guide for living. I hope these verses encourage our kids to continue studying the Bible and develop a good habit of reading it throughout the summer.
So that's that. My last FCA lesson of the year. My prayer is that this summer our kids would engage in the same discipline they do in athletics for their spiritual lives so they can grow in their faith and avoid complacency.


Adoption and Mothers Day

Last week a caseworker from our agency called to say that she had a pregnancy client who was looking at our profile and wanted to know more about our views on open adoption. She wanted to know what kind of relationship we desired to have with birth parents. The call caught me off guard. We were out of town, at my sister in-law's house preparing to celebrate her recently acquired Doctoral Degree and our niece's birthday, and Nate was at his interview in Omaha. I locked myself in the nearest, quietest room, and tried to explain to the caseworker what I thought we wanted despite being unsure of this ourselves.

Nate and I have always said that an open adoption relationship with birth parents would probably depend a lot on the birth parents--on their backgrounds, what they wanted, and how well our personalities meshed. I know nothing about the client looking at our profile. How do you begin to describe what kind of a relationship you want to have with someone you don't know anything about? I tried to be honest with the caseworker, saying that ideally, we'd like to have a close relationship with the birth parents because a kid can never have too many people to love him/her. I said we'd like to have contact via letters, emails, and even visits either at neutral locations or at our home. Ideally, we'd like birth parents to be a part of our family. Like another sister or brother to us. But, I added, much of this will depend on the personality and desires of the birth parents as well. I hate to agree to regular home visits if the birth parents engage in criminal activity. And let's be honest, there are some personalities that ours just don't gel with--so dinner once a week with someone like that might not be tolerable. I'm not sure if I answered the caseworker's question clearly or "correctly." My answer could've scared this birth parent off....and this could have been our one chance at a child. For a long time after that phone call, I couldn't concentrate on anything else. And even a little over a week later, it still keeps me up at night. It's comforting to know that someone is/was interested in us as I was beginning to think there was something terribly wrong with our profile letter....or us...for not receiving any phone calls.

So today, on Mothers Day, this client is weighing heavily on my heart and it gives me
a bit of a new perspective about the holiday. For the past four years it's been a day where I usually wallow in my own self-pity about not being a mom, but this year is different. This morning I can't help thinking about how difficult Mothers Day would be for birth parents--especially those still struggling to choose between parenting and adoption. I can't even imagine. If you're the praying type, while you're thanking God for your own mom, offer up a prayer for wisdom for birth mom's struggling to choose between parenting and adoption.


Upcoming changes

This week we began packing up our house here in Ogallala :( and we're busy planning our big move across the great state of Nebraska. As I mentioned in a post long ago, we'll be moving to the Omaha area this summer. I accepted a position teaching high school English at Gretna, and Nate accepted a position on Thursday teaching high school choir at Omaha Burke. Though we're excited about the move (especially since we both have jobs now!), it's been a difficult week. I guess I didn't realize how soon we'd have to move in order to be in the east before our last summer of classes start up on June 4th. I just don't feel like I've had enough time with friends and our students here in O-town. It will definitely be hard to say good-bye to many people here.

What's cool about this move is to watch God work it all out. I accepted my new position long before Nate even began applying for jobs in that area. After praying about the job offer, we knew it was a good position for me and we just felt God nudging us to take a step of faith. We knew He'd take care of us in whatever way He saw fit. That's not to say that it wasn't a tad stressful thinking about what we'd do if only one of us had a steady income! But it has been cool to watch God unfold things before us. We're still praying that the right buyer comes along for our house. It looks as if we'll be staying with some old, dear friends of ours from our college years. They're awesome people and brothers and sisters in Christ. And while it might be a fun experience for awhile, we certainly don't want to wear out our welcome...and we'd like to be in our own home at some point. But I'm not sure we can financially make that work if we still own a home here. Fortunately, we've had some traffic through our cute, little abode. If you're the praying type, throw up a few that we'd be blessed with patience as we wait for God to unfold His plans even more for us. I know there are many people praying for us now, so if you're one of them, thanks for your support.

For now, I'll leave you with a few of the homes I've had my eye on :) Here's one near Elkhorn, so it would be about an equal commute for both Nate and me. I LOVE the kitchen and living room area. This one is in Gretna....almost right across the street from my new school...not sure if I want to commit to that, but it's cute nonetheless!


Becoming a writer

In high school I dreamed of becoming a writer. Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac hooked me; I wanted to be them. I bought journals from Barnes and Noble and stole away to local parks and coffee shops to write essays, articles, poems, songs, and just plain thoughts. During my junior and senior year of high school, I spent what little free time I had in between musical rehearsal, track practice, and my job at the bagel shop writing and reading. Sometime during my first year of college I declared my major as English, and from then on out I took every English class my schedule would allow. During my intro. to poetry writing course my sophomore year of college, my professor, Dr. Fort, encouraged me to submit a few poems to The Carillon, our English department's creative writing journal. For a few years I submitted pieces and had a few selected each year for the tiny little collection of student work. The first time I saw my name in print, I squealed with excitement and nearly cried. But sometime after my junior year of college, writing took a backseat. I was newly married and in the final stretch of my undergraduate degree where creative writing was traded for literary analysis and lesson plans.

Worn ragged and with gray speckled hair at the age of 22, I finished my first year of teaching and took the Nebraska Writing Project's Summer Institute. The first day of class, the professor, Dr. Brooke, explained the expectations including the daily writing we'd have to bring to our writing groups. Everyday. For four weeks. Out of necessity, I had stopped writing for nearly three years in order to be a wife and teacher. A small part of me was excited to write again, but a bigger part of me was terrified. Only one other student in the course was as young as me, and the rest had at least five years on me or more...way more. And most of them looked like creative, writing types: Radiohead t-shirts, Keen sandals, tattoos, and cycling helmets next to their backpacks. Not only were they more experienced teachers, but they looked way hipper than me. And I had to share my writing with some of these people. A week later we were split into permanent writing groups for the rest of the course. For two hours each day we shared our writing in small groups and then gave and received whatever feedback the writer requested. Once past the initial awkwardness, I loved it. My writing group became like a little family as we shared our passions, our families, our travels, our obsession with odd things like outhouses and pens, and eventually the most intimate portions of our lives: bad romances, innocence stolen, our fears, and death. In one of our writing group meetings, I shared a piece that I think dealt with a few ideas I had about teaching or something of the sort (I don't even remember what it was about anymore). My group was filled with fiery teachers who taught from the depths of their heart, so my voice trembled as I shared my ideas with the teachers who had grown to become my mentors. One of my group members immediately asked if I had shared my ideas with any other teachers. When I responded that I had not because I was afraid of what others would think, he responded with, "Who gives a shit. Your voice matters, and you've got to realize that." It was empowering. Throughout my first year of teaching I was filled with the impression that I, a first year teacher, knew nothing and did more harm to student learning than good. I started that course afraid to write and share my words, feeling like I had nothing to offer other teachers, and I left proclaiming I was a writer and teacher whose voice mattered.

That course has impacted my teaching and writing in a powerful way. I maintained a daily habit of writing, and took a stand in the teaching profession. Though I still struggle immensely with an inferiority complex, I've grown to know that my voice does matter. So when a call for submissions for a new book, What Teaching Means, came across my email last summer requesting essays on the book's topic, I was intrigued. It took some coaxing from a few people, but I eventually submitted an essay. This fall I received word that my essay was selected for publication if I agreed to work with one of the editors to make a few revisions. The revision process was difficult, and I often wondered if the editor would just give up on me and select a new essay in place of mine. But he didn't. A few weeks ago I received my copy of the book, and squealed again with excitement as I saw my name in print. I started reading through the book this weekend, and I'm humbled by the stories shared in it. The essays encourage me to teach better, to be patient with even the most frustrating students, to look for ways to learn from students, and remind me of why I love my job.


Marathon musings part 2

It's 48 hours after the marathon. My legs are so tight that squatting, climbing up or down stairs, and brisk walking all make me feel as if my legs could snap off at the hip. Blisters, callouses, and bruises adorn my feet. They look more like Frodo's than my own. Running is out of the question for a few days. I attempted a jog down my street yesterday that turned out to be more of a slow shuffle. Despite all of this, I feel like smiling because I can now call myself a marathoner.

My training seemed relatively easy. My 20 miler was challenging, but I didn't struggle too much. After running all 26.2 miles, I have a new respect for marathoners. It was nothing like I expected. I mentioned in my last post that miles 22-26.2 were a great challenge, and I can't begin to tell you how much of an understatement that is. It was around mile 22 or 23 when I saw Nate for the first time since about mile 9, and when he asked how I was doing, I choked up and muttered, "awful." My body has never been through that much before. I could tell I was dehydrated, but my stomach was empty of nutrients at that point, and the more I drank at each aid station, the more I could feel my stomach bounce and make that disgusting sloshing noise that made me want to throw up. My feet throbbed, my quads burned, and my calves cramped. When the finish line was finally in sight, tears immediately filled my eyes and I let myself cry the last 25 meters. But I wasn't crying because of the pain, I cried because of the sudden sense of accomplishment: a sprinter turned marathoner.

Running can be such an emotional experience for me. Seeing 10, 000 people crowding the streets with one goal in mind: to finish, chokes me up. It's not often you see that kind of unity. At the starting line, a woman pushing a little boy in a wheelchair came alongside me wearing a shirt that read: I run because my son Thrasher can't...yet. At mile 12 my dad and I passed a young boy running with his mom. "How old are you?" my dad asked as we came alongside him. "12," he responded. 12 years old! A big race like the Lincoln Marathon is filled with inspiration that keeps you going even when you don't want to.

I had a few cheerleaders along the route. Nate and his siblings and their kids appeared on the course exactly when I needed a boost. My nieces ran alongside me about mile 21 or 22 and yelled, "Go Aunt Danielle! Run faster!" And Jim and Kristin (my running partner) were at miles 3, 15, 22, and the finish holding signs that read: Worst parade ever and Don't puke--this last one is courtesy of our head XC coach; for several seasons now, a don't puke poster shows up at just about every one of our XC meets with a few of our runners' parents. Not only did they make signs, they had shirts made for the event! AND they had goodies for both Nate and I at the finish line. They sent Nate home with a bag filled of Trader Joe's snacks, and they gave me the coolest necklace that has two charms--a silver one that reads 26.2, and a larger gold charm sits behind the silver one that has Lincoln Marathon and the date of the race engraved on it. So not only did Kristin train with me almost every Saturday and some insanely early weekday mornings, bring me Gatorade at halfway points, and listen to me babble on and on about running and teaching, she was there on race day with her husband to offer an incredible amount of support. When I saw them again at mile 22, I couldn't help but smile even when I wanted to puke.

Post marathon picture with Jim and Kristin (photo stolen from Kristin's blog!)
I told my dad I'd never run another marathon again when I crossed the finish line. But after 48 hours, I think I've changed my mind. Even if I didn't run my goal time, running a marathon is still an accomplishment like no other. Crossing that finish line is a moment I'll never forget...and that makes me want to do it all over again even if it means being stiff and sore for a week afterwards.


Post Marathon Musings Part 1

If you're looking for a humbling experience, go run a marathon. Yesterday was the big day: 26.2 at the Lincoln Marathon. I've devoted 14 weeks to training, eating wisely, and sacrificing my Saturday morning sleep-in sessions. The training seemed easier than the actual marathon while the run was by far the most challenging activity I've ever completed. I set out with a goal of 4:30 and kept at the pace easily until roughly mile 22. You know "the wall" that many runners reference when talking about marathons? Yeah, it exists. And it's huge and terrible. I'm not quite sure if I was properly hydrated for the race, and the sinus infection I contracted that week didn't help matters. When I hit the wall I was extremely aware of the searing pain in my hamstrings and quads as well as the feeling of nausea creeping into my throat. My biggest fear was that I'd puke, spilling all the nutrients I'd been conserving for the past 72 hours, and I wouldn't be able to finish what I'd started. So, when the nausea reached the back of my throat (yes, I'm aware of how disgusting this is), I stopped to walk...another thing I had previously vowed to avoid. I allowed myself about 15-20 seconds of walking before I picked up the pace and ran until I felt again that I might puke. I followed this method for the last 4 miles. I finished my first full marathon in 4 hours and 49 minutes. It was tough--physically and mentally. And it was humbling. I'm a competitive, goal-driven person, and while I wouldn't admit this to anyone immediately after the race, I confessed to my husband on the drive home that I was disappointed with my performance. In my FCA lesson today we talked about the praise-driven performance---praising God even when we don't meet our goals or expectations because we realize that God works all things out for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). Like Job, I want to praise God even when things don't go my way. When Job found out that his kids were tragically and suddenly killed, he fell down and worshiped, praising the God who gives and takes away (Job 1:18-21). I wish I had a natural inclination to praise God in all circumstances; hopefully I can develop this attitude of constant praise. While I didn't meet my goal time, I do feel blessed that God allowed me to run 26.2 miles. I learned much about my faith, grew more disciplined, and gained a friend: my running partner, Kristin. 

It's late, and I'm tired---so I'm breaking the marathon musings into two parts. Later this week I'll post photos from the day as well as a few highlights. Stay tuned!


More than just a drop-out

I trudged into the front office at school today coughing and hacking into my shirt sleeve feeling pretty sorry for myself for catching a sinus infection the week of my first marathon. I peered into my mailbox expecting to find the usual flyer advertising books for reluctant readers addressed to Danielle Felzer instead of Danielle Helzer. Crammed inside the small cubby was our 9th grade writing textbook and a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, our current novel of study in English 9. I searched for a name on the inside front cover of the novel, and when I didn't find one I inquired with the secretary.
"They're Justin's*" she answered stoically. "He dropped today."
"What?!" I asked, my voice rising.
"Yup. Came in the morning to sign the papers."
"Well, will he have to bring around a sign out sheet? Will I get to see him?"
"No. Kids who drop out don't have to do that. He said he's coming back next year," she bellowed with a hint of sarcasm. To her, he was just another drop-out.
And that was that. Conversation over. Justin had simply dropped out of school.

Really, it shouldn't have surprised me. Justin was in my 1st hour class, and he only managed to make it to class a few times a week at best. I'll admit, it frustrated me. I had Justin last year in a remedial class and had made a great connection with him. At the end of the year I asked all my students to write me a letter about what they learned, and in his letter buried among misspelled words was, "I've learned that fighting and causing physical problems isn't the answer most of the time. I learned that reading is something I like and it calms me down a bit. And if you really try you can do anything." You'd have to know the kid to know how remarkable these comments are. This is a kid who punched many walls, got in many fights, flipped off many teachers. So when Justin's attendance started to get spotty a few months into this year, it hurt just a bit. Selfishly, I wondered if it was more than a coincidence that Justin missed my class and showed up for 2nd hour.

Eventually I shrugged it off.

A few weeks ago, Justin sauntered in to my room for Extended School Day--20 minutes at the end of the day designated to help failing students catch up.

"Justin! Good to see you! I was beginning to wonder if you were still around! I'm beginning to think you're just skippin' out on English," I said playfully.
"Ha, ha Ms. Helzer. Nah, it's not you. I just can't get my butt out of bed in the morning. I can't take serious classes in the morning next year," he responded with a grin.
"Well, that's a good realization to have. Keep that in mind when you set up your schedule next year. Now, what can I help you with?"
And we set to work sifting through the endless pile of make-up work I had collected for Justin. When the bell rang at 3:25, he gathered up his things and I said, "Man, Justin, it'd be great to see you tomorrow morning at 8:00..."
"7:55 would be better. I'm gonna be here at 7:55!" and we both laughed as he walked out of my room.

The next morning he walked through my door at 7:59, and I made sure to make a big deal out of Justin's early arrival to class. I patted him on the back as he walked in and he rolled his eyes as I told him I was sooo glad to see his lovely face. I continued this trend each time Justin made it to my class.

He didn't make it to class today. But he did make it to school to sign papers so he could drop out.  It broke my heart to put his books back on the shelf. He doesn't realize how much potential he has. He improved 20 points in Reading on our district test scores this year. The gains he's made despite his poor attendance have been tremendous. This isn't the first student I've had drop out, but this one hit me hard today. After I realized I'd probably never talk to him again since we'll be moving in less than a month, I wondered if I had done enough for Justin. I hope I showed him that I cared about him. I hope he felt welcome in our classroom. I think back to the last line he wrote in his reflection letter about being able to do anything if he really tries. I wonder where he picked up on this as I'm careful not to say this to my students because I know it's mostly a load of crap if taken too literally. A part of me hopes Justin finds some truth in that line. I hope he learns that he could do the unthinkable if he really tries---like making it to school on time, passing his classes, graduating from high school. And I hope this drives him back to school sometime soon.

I don't know what will become of Justin. But I do know that he's more than just a high school drop-out...he's an unforgettable student. I hope my memories of him will push me to invest deeply in students no matter how many times they frustrate me or miss my class.

*I changed the name of this student to keep in line with confidentiality.