Hello my friends! I am sitting down to update my blog while my baby boy is trying to climb behind the TV and play with the wires. “This Is Us” is on in the background, and I’m sipping on my iced Americano while I ignore the pile of essays that I eventually need to grade. Life has changed quite a bit since I first started Too Cool for Middle School!
Let me reintroduce myself. My profile read “second-year teacher,” but now I’m in my sixth year of teaching. I work at an amazing middle school in Southern California with students from all over the world. I’m currently teaching 6th grade history, 6th grade English, and 8th grade English. I coach volleyball, softball, and I’ve acquired a little collection of clubs including a Human Rights club, a Hamilton/Harry Potter club, and a fashion club. Clearly my students and I share a lot of interests!
This is a new season of life for me. For the first time since Kindergarten, I’m not a student. I completed my Masters degree in US History last May (at thirty-nine weeks pregnant!). I wrote my thesis on Rothschild Francis, my husband’s great grandfather, who fought for citizenship and civil rights in the US Virgin Islands in the 1920’s. Research, writing, and telling the stories of unlikely heroes truly fulfill me. I’m sure that I will find myself in the world of academia again soon.
Last June my husband and I began the most incredible journey we’ve walked together yet–parenthood! Our son Jenson was born on the last day of school in 2016, and we spent the summer learning all about diapering, nursing, swaddling, and functioning on two hours of sleep. Jenson is a year old now and he’s an absolute joy. He is THE cutest child I’ve ever seen in my life (I’m biased, I know), and he keeps us laughing constantly. He fills up my Instastories, so for his daily antics, check out my Instagram!
Speaking of social media, my YouTube channel has grown slowly but intimately. I’ve made genuine friends through both YouTube and Instagram, and I love the sense of community from the subscribers who comment and engage with my posts. I want to write more about my lessons and classroom strategies, and offer resources to middle school teachers. This blog is a useful platform for those goals, so I am going to be more intentional about creating blog content in addition to YouTube videos.
I’ve always written and spoken about fashion, and these days I am even more invested in fashion than ever. My fashion goals are to purchase only fair trade clothing, or clothing made in the US. I am becoming much more minimalist in my style, and I want to invest in pieces that truly make me feel like my best self, and that will last for years to come. I am learning about sustainable fashion, eco-friendly fashion, and the effects that fast fashion have on human rights, the planet, and even our sense of satisfaction. I will continue to share with you amazing companies that are making the world a better place, while also offering beautiful products. I have a few fair trade fashion posts coming soon!
Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. I appreciate this online community of teachers, and I hope to make this Internet world a more positive and encouraging place. Thank you for the opportunity!
So I know this doesn’t have anything to do with teaching, but I thought I would share with you the most exciting night of my life! I am the biggest Mariah Carey fan ever and I finally got to see her in concert for my birthday. Here’s a little video about my amazing night (and some secret footage!)
Last year I was reading one of my favorite blogs, The Small Things Blog, and Kate wrote a post on her birthday, just reflecting on her life at the moment. I recently turned 29 and it has me feeling a little nostalgic and wanting to slow down and focus on what is happening around me. This is the last year of my twenties, and life feels like it is flying by. My actual birthday was pretty hectic, as I had just finished teaching summer school, I directed the Lion King Jr. the night before, my parents were visiting from Northern California and brought us some hand-me-down furniture, and my husband was working 14-hour days at a basketball tournament that he helps run every year. It was a fun but crazy day, and I am just now getting time to sit down and write and reflect. So here is a little life update as I kick off age 29…
making: some new YouTube videos about my teaching experiences
cooking: nothing, sadly! We have been subsisting on leftovers from when my parents were here, but I’m going to need to make a Trader Joe’s run soon!
drinking: a grande iced americano with vanilla syrup. every. single. day. It’s a problem.
reading: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. (Keep an eye out for book review video!)
wanting: to find the perfect summer clutch
looking: at the stack of Lion King cards that I made for all the kids in my cast. I need to get those in the mail tomorrow!
playing: Duolingo. It’s just ridiculous how bad my Spanish still is after so many years of studying!
wasting: my life on Snapchat every five seconds
wishing: that there was more summer left than there actually is
enjoying: my first actual week of summer vacation. I’ve been sleeping in, taking walks, going shopping, catching up on movies, and sprucing up our apartment a little. It’s definitely enjoyable!
waiting: for my husband to have some time off with me! He helps run a super high level basketball tournament for two weeks every July. He loves it and he’s great at it, but he has to work 14 or 15 hour days, so I can’t wait until he gets to relax 🙂
liking: the message in the Pixar movie, Inside Out. Such a cute movie!
wondering: if I’m actually an introvert. These past few days of time to myself have been so good for my soul. Although, I felt compelled to share every other thought on Snapchat, so maybe I’m not…
loving: that my husband and I are both happy night owls
hoping: that I’ll get to meet Mariah Carey at her concert next week!
needing: to find a really good budgeting/ saving system
smelling: the bouquet my Lion King kiddos got for me
wearing: yoga pants and a tank top
noticing: that my nieces are changing and growing so quickly
knowing: that I make a difference in kids’ lives. and that feels great.
thinking: about auditioning for a theatre production next year
feeling: like I forgot to do something that was particularly important today
opening: such sweet birthday cards that have been trickling in since last week. I have the nicest friends and family!
I drove home from my classroom last night thinking, “Wow, does the new teacher glow really wear off that quickly?” We had just finished two grueling days of meetings, trainings, acronyms, expectations, changes, new curriculum, and binders of information that we never even got to. I have no computer or printer in my classroom, and we didn’t (still don’t) have final class lists. We have a new schedule and we are implementing several new programs, so I just didn’t feel like I had my bearings. Someone suggested, “Just go with the flow,” but the thing is, there is no flow.
It was hard to be excited for the first day of school when I was so stressed out and disoriented. This is my second year at the school and I’m in the same classroom, so how could I possibly feel more unprepared and unorganized than I did last year? I started thinking back to what I was feeling a year ago, and I noticed one major difference.
Last year I was so grateful to have finally landed a job after applying all summer. I was so happy to have my own classroom that it was okay with me that it wasn’t quite perfect on the first day. Honestly, the changes and expectations that we are facing this year are incredibly frustrating, but at the end of the day, I have a job.
I’m grateful that I have a job.
I’m grateful that I didn’t have to switch classrooms.
I’m grateful that I get to work with middle schoolers.
I’m grateful that I am physically able to make it up and down the stairs to my classroom every day.
I’m grateful that I woke up feeling healthy today.
I’m grateful that my car made it all the way to school without any issues.
We eased the kids into the school year today, so each class period was only about 25 minutes long. By the time I took roll and figured out who was here, who was lost, and who moved over the summer, we only had a few minutes left in class. Rather than jumping into procedures, I just told the students about my gratefulness theme for the year.
I told them to remind me about this theme when I get grumpy. And I will definitely be reminding them about it when they get all teenage-angsty. We talked about training ourselves to be grateful every time we are annoyed or frustrated.
You don’t feel like doing this worksheet? Be grateful that you have the ability to actually read that worksheet.
You are tired in class and wish you could go home? Be grateful that there is a bus to take you there at the end of the day, and that you don’t have to walk.
You got a low score on an assignment? Be grateful that there is an extra credit opportunity coming up.
We also just casually shared out things that we are thankful for in general. This was a pretty cool way to get to know some of the kids on the first day. Some said they were thankful for their parents, their friends, God, bacon, and clean water. One kid said he was thankful that his sister didn’t get deployed to Afghanistan. They were thankful for their new school clothes, and the fact that they don’t have to wear uniforms. Every class seemed to have one cheeky little student who said, “I’m thankful that I get to be in your class this year.” Well played, kiddo.
It basically took a genie and about a thousand wishes to bring my dream to life, but it the end, we did it! Twenty five middle school students and I put on the very first summer musical production ever at our school. And it was fantastic! I’m not even kidding, it made grown men cry. How did we do it? Well, it was a bit of a whirlwind, but I will try and break down the steps for anyone who is interested in starting something like this at another school. It will drive you halfway to crazy pulling everything together, but it is so worth it!
step 1: find a genie (aka a grant)
It’s a long story, but it involves two buddies on a road trip, my parents at a pub 600 miles from where I live, some small town friendliness, and a string of coincidences and shared passions. In the end, I met a man who runs a foundation in the same town where I teach. The purpose of this foundation is to provide grant money to teachers who bring performing arts opportunities to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have those opportunities.
I sat down with the director of this foundation, and our passions aligned perfectly. We both believe that the performing arts can be transformational in young students’ lives, and that every student deserves to have access to high quality performing arts programs. We saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the school where I work, to not only provide the very first musical theatre instruction there, but also to offer a summer program as an alternative to playing Minecraft or watching TV for two and a half months. We also wanted it to be free to any student who was interested in participating. I work in a low-income neighborhood where many students can’t afford to attend any summer programs at all.
I developed a grant proposal and a budget with the things we would need to make the summer production happen. The foundation approved my grant, and agreed to fully fund the program. I promise you, there ARE still good people in this world who are willing to help kids in their communities!
We worked closely with my principal and the performing arts director at the district office. Without the cooperation of administrators, the program would have been dead in the water. As I teacher, I had to rely on administrators for facilities, paperwork, insurance, processing funds, etc. I am lucky that my principal is as much of a musical theatre nerd as I am!
step 2: find and license a script
The world of Aladdin and Agrabah just seemed like a fun place to be over the summer. I love the music and the costumes and the setting, so choosing a show was the easy part. I highly suggest purchasing a script and licensing rights from MTI Productions. Generally, this will cost about $1,000 (but that’s why you got a grant!). You will receive high-quality, professional scripts, background music tracks, and you can order t-shirts and a graphics package.
If you are working with middle school students like I did, you will definitely want to choose a script from their Broadway Junior Collection. The length of the shows is perfect, and the humor level is spot on. There are plenty of shows to choose from, and I can’t wait to pick one for next year. If you choose a full-length adult production, your show will likely be too long and will not play to the strengths of middle school students.
The director’s book comes with everything you need to run your auditions, so you need to purchase this package before the auditions. Since it was my first time dealing with the licensing and all of that, this process took me several months to complete. Make sure that your grant money is ready to go when you start this process.
step 3: choose a cast
Before the auditions, I held several informational meetings at lunch, and sent home audition permission slips. I listed the dates and times of every rehearsal and performance and made it clear that all rehearsals were MANDATORY. I knew there would be kids who would be excited to sign up, but would be out of town for some of the rehearsals. Not gonna work. We only had 4 weeks to rehearse (I know, I set myself up for a miracle from the start), so perfect attendance was non-negotiable.
The perfect attendance policy weeded out any kids who weren’t really serious about the production, so I ended up with exactly 25 students at the audition. Twenty five was my max, so I got to keep everyone!
The majority of my group was girls, so I had to play around with casting a little bit in order to cover all the roles in a play with ONE FEMALE character. (How did I not think of that ahead of time?). We ended up interpreting Genie as a girl, and a lot of girls just played male roles. And they were fantastic! The great thing about working with middle school students is that they are still willing to be silly and goof around without worrying about being cool. To me, middle schoolers are IDEAL actors to work with.
Many of the students who auditioned were from my 6th grade English classes, but I also had some 7th and 8th graders. As I mentioned, most of the students were girls, but we ended up with a very diverse cast. We included students from the SPED department, and Honors classes. I even brought over two of my piano students from another middle school to help me out with choreography. There were a few kids who had been in productions before, or who had taken dance lessons or something, but the majority of them had no acting experience whatsoever. This meant that they were humble and curious and ready to see what they could do!
I included team-building activities and opportunities for students to get to know each other as often as I could because in a production like this, everyone has to rely on and trust each other. We started our own Instagram hashtag and took Friday afternoon trips to get frozen yogurt, just to promote friendship and teamwork. Many of the students became very close friends by the end of the play. They’re so stinkin cute.
step 4: rehearse!
(This is me with my Mariah Carey Butterfly drink that I would bring to rehearsals. It actually tastes pretty terrible, but I love to be a diva in every way possible!)
We only had SIXTEEN rehearsals to pull this whole thing together. We rehearsed from 8:30-12:30 Mondays through Fridays for about four weeks. I wanted our final performance to be July 3rd, because after the July 4th weekend it can be really tough to keep a full cast at rehearsals at all times. I decided I would rather have a shorter, more intense program, instead of dragging it out through the whole summer. There comes a point in every play where everyone starts to get fatigued and sick of each other, and you can kind of avoid that if you keep it short. Short and stressful!
We started with choreography. I think the choreography makes or breaks a performance, so I wanted as much time to refine that as possible (and it TOTALLY paid off). I wasn’t even sure if any of the kids could dance, but they all did so well! My two piano students (who have been in several productions at their own school) taught a lot of the choreography, and I worked out the formations and transitions. We dubbed Fridays “Friend Like Me Fridays” because that routine was the most complicated and always needed a little more cleaning up. MTI provides a choreography DVD which we used for about half of the production, but we also included a lot of our own moves.
Then we started going through the script scene by scene, blocking as we rehearsed. During the weeks between auditions and rehearsals the students were supposed to start memorizing their lines, and most kids were pretty good at their lines after a few run-throughs. The most important thing I kept reminding them of was facing the audience and speaking to the audience. It’s a play, we understand that it’s not real life and you might not face the actor that you’re speaking to full on. Stage presence and blocking just take some getting used to and some coaching. By the end of a few weeks, those kids were pros.
Mondays were “Music Mondays,” and we would sing through the songs without choreography. Some of those Aladdin songs are hard! I teach voice lessons, so I would lead the kids through warm ups and help them with their parts. Even after all our rehearsing, “A Whole New World” was still a little shaky, so we went with our strength–we added cheesy choreography. Ballerina stars and moons swirled around Jasmine and Aladdin on their magic carpet as they sang. And it was hilarious. Play to your strengths, and don’t take any scenes too seriously!
step 5: take a break and do something fun and crazy!
We were fortunate enough to receive some extra grant money to take the whole cast to Disney’s California Adventure for free. Not only was it a nice little incentive/ reward for all the kids’ hard work, but we got to see a live performance of Aladdin! After practicing for several weeks and beginning to really get into character, it was great for the kids to see a professional play their part. The show is absolutely amazing (I wish we could borrow their magic carpet!), and we took away a few ideas from the performance to incorporate into our own show.
We all wore our Aladdin t-shirts so that I could spot my kids from far away. At the beginning of the week I let them decorate their shirts during rehearsal breaks (basically just to occupy their attention while I worked with smaller groups). Clearly they like to keep things simple and neutral.
I went on Tower of Terror with two of my 6th grade girls (excuse me, I mean 7th graders now!), and I ended up curled up in a ball on their laps like a total wimp. They will never let me forget it now! All the kids got to spend plenty of quality time together, and for the many that had never been to California Adventure before, this was a pretty exciting day. We took the trip one week before the performance, just as things started to get really stressful, so it was a perfect day to relax, enjoy some rides, and to be inspired to make our show magical.
step 6: get some costumes
I purchased costumes for most of the cast with just a few hundred dollars. I gave each actor a description of the costume that I envisioned for them and asked to start collecting items that might work. Some kids just needed some black pants, a white shirt, sandals, or something easy like that. These items they brought from home.
These two girls had incredibly talented mothers who handmade their gorgeous costumes!
I ordered a lot of the more elaborate pieces on Amazon, like Aladdin’s fez and Jafar’s turban. We found a yoga apparel seller with harem pants in every color, so I ordered about six pairs in various sizes and just gave them to whoever needed some. Fortunately, the harem pants/Middle Eastern look is very in right now, so I was able to just go to Forever 21 and find a lot of the things we needed. Forever 21 has a great jewelry section, and I got a ton of cheap pieces that added a lot of flair to the costumes.
I had to replace a tire one Saturday afternoon, and the shop happened to be right next to this huge Indian street fair. I know, I know, Aladdin does not take place in India, but some of the items I found were so beautiful, and suited what we needed at least as well as some of the Halloween costume pieces from Amazon. Our production was not exactly a pillar of historical accuracy anyway, so I bought this gorgeous headpiece and shirt for the Sultan.
Of course a magic lamp was central to our play, and I found this one in one of the Indian shops. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this fabric, but it was so beautiful that I figured we could find a use for it somehow. We ended up draping it over Jasmine’s shoulder for the wedding scene and it looked great.
Here are a few of the jewelry pieces from Forever 21, and Jasmine’s white long-sleeved crop top from American Apparel. The teal necklace looked perfect on Jasmine, and I loved the tiger earrings for her. Raja, Jasmine’s pet tiger from the movie, wasn’t included in our script, so the earrings were our nod to him. Gold shackles were a must for Genie, and these swirly gold bangles were only $4 each. (This was an Instagram post to remind the kids to bring their costumes).
step 7: use social media to promote your show
I did not have time to deal with flyers and printers and all that mess. I made a little digital flyer on my phone and texted it to all the cast members. They posted it to Instagram and Snapchat to let their friends know about the performance, and their moms posted it to their Facebook walls. We didn’t need to pack the auditorium in order to fundraise, so we just wanted to make sure that everyone who could come out and support the kids knew when to come.
step 8: set up your set
When we started rehearsals, our stage looked like that scene from Sister Act 2 with the broken piano and the graffiti all over the walls. According to our custodian, no one had used the stage in the 2o years that he has been there, and it was basically just a storage area for broken desks and chairs. We had help cleaning everything off, but the stage was still completely bare. We had no side curtains or back curtain, but one of the other teachers at my school offered to build us this fantastic plywood backdrop.
Twenty four hours before our first performance the backdrop was still blank. I hired a local muralist to come paint it, but he couldn’t make it until the day before the performance. This meant that we couldn’t use the stage the day before our show. I was stressing out big time, but after a few hours of rehearsal at the back of the cafeteria, I turned around and saw THIS! I couldn’t believe my eyes! We still had no side curtains, and only one of our front curtains actually closed (a kid’s brother had to hold on to the other one and pull it open and shut for every scene), but hey, our backdrop looked great! I think it distracted from what we lacked and brought our show up to a whole new world–I mean, level. (Sorry, couldn’t help it!).
step 9: hair & makeup
You will have two or three moms who would absolutely love to help with hair and makeup. On the day of the performance I ordered pizzas and invited anyone who wanted to help to come down for two hours and glam up our actors. I was still running around getting last-minute things taken care of, but this time was relaxing and fun for the kids. Although I did hear quite a few squeals of, “Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous!”
The older girls were great at doing everyone’s hair.
We were not shy with the painted-on facial hair.
step 10: break a leg!
I cannot even explain how proud I am of these kids. Most of them had never performed before in their lives, and they put on a spectacular performance. They were hilarious and professional and coordinated and humble. They supported each other and took care of everything from the curtain(s) to the sound to backstage management. It was incredibly rewarding to watch them interact with the audience and to see the pride rise up in their chests as hundreds of people laughed at their jokes, applauded their dancing and swayed along with their singing. Parents looked at their pre-teens in a whole new light as they witnessed their kids’ talent, dedication and hard work. It was such a gift for me to be able to be a part of this group of special kids. But don’t take my word for it–watch the whole performance for yourself here!
This year my school piloted the new SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) tests with just two computer labs for the entire school. The online tests take quite a bit of time, so for several weeks, the whole school was on a block schedule, meaning that class periods were a little over two hours long. Some days we saw our 1st, 3rd and 5th period classes, and then the next day we had our 2nd, 4th and 6th period classes. There was one day when I took my English classes down to the lab for testing, but for the rest of the 3 weeks or so, I just had very long class periods. I know that many schools operate on block schedules all the time, but it was a bit of an adjustment for our kiddos.
(P.S. It drives me absolutely BONKERS that the name of California’s testing company is Smarter Balanced. English teachers, do you see why? It should be Smart-LY Balanced, or Smarter BALANCE, but I think a margarine company already took that one. I just have to say “SBAC” or else I gag.)
I knew it was going to be tough for my middle schoolers to make it through a 2-hour block, plus have the stamina to finish two days’ worth of lessons in one sitting. So I made a deal with them that every time we had a block period, we would stop halfway through and watch a surprise video. They were allowed to stop me at any point in a lesson at exactly the halfway mark, and we would take our video break. This gave me leverage at the beginning of class, (“Come on guys, you just need to focus for about 15 more minutes and then you’ll have a break!”), and the videos I chose tended to inspire students to do well for the second half of class.
A huge part of the reason that I became a teacher is because I want to teach kids to become kind, compassionate, globally conscious people. This break time gave me the perfect opportunity to use videos to teach them important life lessons that, really, might be more valuable to them than understanding that Smarter Balanced is grammatically incorrect. (Ugh, gag still.)
Before I list all the videos, let me share the best app that I’ve found for showing videos on my iPad (the only device I have in my classroom). Students are usually the best resource for tech questions, and one of my 8th graders showed me iTube. It allows me to download videos at home (since our internet blocks pretty much every website in existence), and then use it later without having to rely on wifi. I have playlists for History, English, and Inspirational Videos. Life. Saver.
Video #1: Tech N9ne- Fragile (Director’s Cut)
This song took on a life of its own in my class. I loved the sound, and the message that even if some people see you as “fragile,” maybe you are just creative and sensitive to what matters. I see kids like this in my classes all the time, and sometimes I am actually jealous of their ability to tap into their emotions so deeply. My students LOVED this video, and they all went home and downloaded the song. (Tech N9ne, contact me here to give me my cut of the royalties!) The begged me to play it every day during passing period. There is one bad word in there (at 2:12) but I just got really good at muting my speakers for that split second while the whole class groaned.
Video #2: Middle School Football Players Execute Life-Changing Play
This is such a sweet story about some “cool kids” who stood up for kid with special needs. I could tell that it really made my students think about how they treat other kids at school. The girls thought the football players were “OMG, so cute!” so they were basically enraptured. I’m not entirely sure, but I could have sworn I saw a couple boys wipe away a tear.
There was one kid (who has been a pain in the butt all year) who yelled out, “Ha, what a little b*$#^!” in the middle of the video. I almost lost it on him, but the ones who react like that are the ones who need to see this stuff the most. I think subconsciously he knows that he would never have thought to do something nice like that for anyone, and it made him feel bad.
Video #3: Caine’s Arcade
If you haven’t seen this short film yet, you will love it! Caine is adorable, and he lives in our area. The film is incredibly well done, and Caine’s perseverance, ingenuity, and passion are so inspiring. I think it’s so important to show my students examples of kids who are doing amazing things. They loved it, and they want to plan a field trip down to Caine’s Arcade. 🙂
Video #4: How Do YOU Define Yourself? By Lizzie Velasquez
Honestly, I felt like I had to work my way up to this video. But by this point in our “video journey” my students had started to pick up on what we were doing. Lizzie Velasquez is a phenomenal motivational speaker with a sparkling personality. She was once labeled “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” but she overcame merciless bullying with a kind and fighting spirit. Lizzie is such a good role model, and watching her video provided my students with the opportunity to practice compassion, understanding, and seeing past physical appearance. It’s great!
Video #5: Kid President–20 Things We Should Say More Often
This kid is just adorable. It’s undeniable! Most of my students had already seen this one, but they love him! And at the end, every student had to choose one positive thing to say (besides the scream!).
Video #6: Kid President–Pep Talk to Teachers and Students
They just couldn’t get enough of him, so we did another!
Video #7: Kid Snippets–Book Report
Okay, we kind of got on a silly streak, but these Kid Snippet videos are hilarious (and clean). You’d be surprised how much a little laugh break can increase the productivity in your classroom!
Bonus Video: Somethin’ Special (by me)
They’ve been asking me to sing for them all year, so I let them see one of my cheesy little cover videos that I like to make sometimes. I think it’s good for them to see adults being creative and doing things for fun. It was also good for them to see that I made some little mistakes in my song, but I didn’t let that stop me from having fun with it and sharing it with them. You don’t have to be perfect all the time!
Next time you have an extended day, or an intense lesson that warrants a rest in the middle, try one of these videos with your kiddos and see how it goes. The best thing is that they will inspire your students to become more resilient, more caring, and more creative. Watching them together fostered a really neat, connected attitude within my classroom as well. It’s a win-win-win!