Category Archives: school

There Are No Words


If I have learned anything over the last few weeks, it is that I crave structure.  I need it to be productive.  I am slowly working on getting back into some type of routine as everything has shifted over the last couple of weeks.  Right now, I’m not even sure what it would look like.

I’d love to put tons of time and energy into my Google Classroom now, but Michigan just closed schools for the rest of the school year.  Up until this point, I was unable to assign anything for a grade.  I could share things I would like my students to look at and do, but that was about it.  I did come across some great stuff that I will be using with my students moving forward.  Unfortunately, that is the point.  Until we can figure out what distance learning will look like at our school, I’m not sure how we will handle students without out devices and internet access.  Hopefully, we will know more next week and will be able to move on from there.

I miss and worry about my students.  My heart breaks for my 8th graders who will be heading off to high school next year.  Will they be ready?  We did not get to send them off in the way they need to be sent off – not yet, anyway.  I worry less about 6th and 7th graders.  I can put things in place to help us fill in gaps next year.  It may not be fun, but it might be necessary.  I still miss them though, and they are certainly missing out on so much.  When we left school on Friday, March 13th – a day I will never forget – I was in the middle of planning a field trip to the Michigan Science Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts.  My 6th graders were also supposed to go to Lansing on another field trip in early May – a field trip that never happened last year.  8th graders are also missing out on their last dance, usually put on by 7th grade.  Not to mention track and field day, the last events surrounding Lent and Easter, and the wonderful chaos that is the last week of the school year.  Oh, and I could cry when I think of what we had planned for March is reading month, most of which never took place, including Prime Time Live Friday Night (originally slated for that ill-fated Friday the 13th) and a poetry café, among so much else.

Then there are the student council events.  I am the student council advisor, and my students pleaded with me to plan an end of year event.  A trip to an escape room and laser tag were in the works.  We were also supposed to have a carnival for younger students during March is reading month, all sponsored and put on by student council.  I’m now trying to figure out how we are going to do elections for next year, which take place every spring.  I may be able to come up with something there.  The point is that everyone who works in or deals with education day-in, day-out – teachers, administrators, volunteers, staff, parents, and certainly students – lost so much over these last few weeks.

I feel as though that goes double for students in Catholic schools.  I am not Catholic, and I do not teach religion, but I know what my students are missing at a time when they could use their faith the most.  They need guidance when it comes to faith formation, and that is what they are lacking now.  I keep thinking … 20 years from now, how I will I explain these times to my students?  There are times when I feel at a loss when I try discussing September 11th with current students who were born longer after 2001.

This is not what I wanted or dreamed for my first full year teaching.  It just isn’t.  I do hope that next year will bring a “normal” year.  During the 2018-2019 school year, those of us in Michigan experienced a record number of “cold”/snow days.  Something no one experienced before.  Now this.  I think everyone could use a return to “normal” at this point.

Change the World

Then there is the canoe livery.  Fortunately for us, we don’t truly begin to get busy until the end of June, early July.  August keeps getting busier and busier every year.  This time of year, we get things ready for opening on Memorial Weekend.  We will see what happens.  While we can make some progress, in other ways, it is difficult.  For example, I can’t finish ordering our t-shirts and sweatshirts at this point.  Would it be wise to do so right now with so much uncertainty?  Same goes for other merchandise in our stores.

There are so many summer scenarios that are running through my head.  I can’t help but think we’d be especially busy if things start returning to normal by early June.  If it is towards the end of June, that might put more pressure on already extremely busy weekends.  Should we extend our season?  Time will tell.

I do know that I will survive.  My family will survive.  The canoe livery will survive.  We’ve weathered so many storms in the past.  I keep telling myself how bleak things looked in 2018 in the wake of massive 100-year flooding due to ice.  We made it and came back better than ever.  Eventually a path will be made clear, and there will be a new “normal.”  We all just need to hold on until then.

Empty Classroom


Dear Students, We Didn’t Even Get to Say Goodbye – Her View from Home

To Those Saying “Lucky Teachers,” This Isn’t a Break for Us, It’s Heartbreak

Through all of this, seniors – the class of 2020 – has been on my mind.  I hope that when this is all over, we will have the opportunity to properly celebrate all their accomplishments.  I think we are all grieving all the celebrations, events, you name it that have been cancelled at this point.  While I know some people have expressed anger at people getting upset over cancellations, it is only human that we grieve all the experiences we’ve lost.  Does that mean we shouldn’t take precautions or help those in need because we are bummed that our events were cancelled?  No.  It just means that we are grieving a valid loss – at this point, we all are.

I don’t know what these next few weeks or months will bring, but I do know that we will work through this together.  One of the silver linings of all of this is the time to work on projects that have been put on hold indefinitely.  For example, I’ve toyed with the idea of playing around with podcasting for some time, and tonight, I think I will finally start.  We will see where it goes!  I am also planning to play around with sharing podcasts with my students too.  Much more to come!

Miss Russell

PS – Check out the new page I created to share middle school online resources – Miss Russell’s Middle School Resources

One Week …

I will never forget Friday, March 13th, 2020.  I teach middle school at a small, rural Catholic school, and we had just had an unexpected day off due to a boiler issue.  Late in the day on Thursday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer mandated all schools closed as of Monday, March 16th.  Suddenly we were all faced with an undetermined amount of time off.  Not only did teachers and administrators not quite know what to expect, students looked to us for answers and we had none.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  After school on that Friday, we were supposed to have an after school event for March is reading month, Prime Time Live Friday Night.  Games, dinner, and prizes all cancelled.  Our once full March calendar suddenly free.  Now, our last Stations of the Cross is the last school memory I will have for a while.

I can’t help but think of all my 6th through 8th graders through all of this.  Are they OK?  How do I help make sure they are still learning?  What can I do when I can’t assign any graded work as not everyone has internet access?  I’ve worked my way through a crash-course on creating Google Classrooms, learning by doing.

Oh, the events!  I so looked forward to so many events this spring!  We had one field trip planned to Lansing in May, and I was in the process of booking another to the Michigan Science Center and the Detroit Institute of Art.  We were just beginning the novel Esperanza Rising as a middle school.  Oh, and the poetry unit I wanted to do.  Then there were the professional development opportunities now cancelled.  I looked forward to learning to become the best possible middle school teacher I can be.  I am hoping that I have the same opportunities next year.

Then there are the longer-term questions.  When will we return to school?  What to expect when we do?  When will society return to “normal’?  How will things work with our seasonal family business, which is due to start Memorial Weekend?  In fact, I’ve been splitting my time between trying to round up resources for my students and using this opportunity to get some business done.

Watching and observing how we have all come together as a profession (teachers are the best!), a church, a community, a state, and a country is heartwarming.  Ultimately, we will all become stronger through this adversity.

I will post resources soon!

Columbine: Before and After


Just over twenty years ago, school changed forever – April 20th, 1999 to be exact. Prior to that date, school shootings simply did not happen – or at least not with the frequency they do now. I am old enough to remember life before Columbine. In fact, the spring of 1999 marked the last semester of my senior year of high school. In that pre-Columbine world, we did not have active shooter or lockdown drills. School doors were not always locked. In fact, even during my early high school years at the rural Michigan high school I attended, boys and girls who loved to hunt and had their own vehicles could lock their rifles in their trucks during deer season. It is not an exaggeration to say that I grew up and attended school in a different world.

This became frighteningly clear to me when I began substitute teaching several years ago. In fact, one experience put it all in perspective. As a substitute teacher, I’ve experienced countless fire, tornado, and lockdown drills. One, however, left me speechless. Subbing for a middle school music teacher in a suburban school district, the lockdown drill itself proved uneventful. However, the conversation I overheard between two young female students as we resumed class left me gutted. The conversation itself appeared casual enough. They were recalling some funny incident that took place during a lockdown drill years ago in 1st grade and laughing about it all over again as only 6th grade girls can. That simple fact – that the students before me, now middle schoolers, never knew school life before lockdown drills – stays with me. They know nothing else.

When I was in 1st grade, my biggest worries were getting picked last in gym class and deciding what to play during recess. Books, learning to read well, drawing and writing, and play all made up my world in 1st grade. Lockdown drills and the thought that someone would want to harm me and my classmates at school never crossed my mind or the mind of anyone else for that matter. When did everything change so drastically? Personally, I believe things began to change April 20th, 1999.

Not all the changes are negative. I do think there is a heightened awareness of the effects bullying can have on anyone. I also believe students today have many more opportunities at all levels than they did twenty or thirty years ago – as it should be.

And then there is kindness. When I first started subbing at my alma mater, Standish-Sterling Central High School, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I continue to be pleasantly surprised. Daily I witness a genuine kindness among students that I found largely lacking during my school years. There appears to be a greater awareness of personal differences of all types. Does that mean bullying doesn’t exist? No. In fact, social media adds a whole new factor into the equation – and it isn’t pretty. Despite that fact, I find students today more accepting and more willing to entertain new ideas. That may not be the case everywhere, but I see it enough in a variety of school settings that I have hope for this generation.

Generation Quote.png

MSU and Memories

Alumni Bricks

Dear D., Continued – Revisited

Dear D. – Revisited

I’ve struggled for nearly two months to write this post.  It is time.  Back in mid-June, I spent the afternoon in East Lansing with my friend Lauri.  While it was not our only intent, we sought the memorial brick my cousin Lugene’s family placed on campus in her memory.  If it weren’t for Lugene, Lauri and I probably would have never met.  Spending time with Lauri searching for Lugene’s memorial brick seemed fitting.  After all, as dedicated genealogists, Lauri and Lugene spent countless days researching in Michigan cemeteries.  Here we were searching for Lugene.

When we did finally locate her memorial brick, it completely caught me off-guard.  It is located near the gardens where I found myself on a first date with a guy I dated briefly while at MSU – a very fun first date.  I had completely forgotten.  While MSU is far too big for me to legitimately say that I have a memory in every part of campus, I certainly have my share.  They all seemed to come flooding back to the point where I couldn’t keep up.

What it comes down to is this:  I need to visit my alma mater more often.  I avoided MSU after my friend Derrick died back in 2009, and Lugene’s death made it even worse.  Lugene took pride in her MSU alum status, and it was a part of her personality.  As much fun as I had visiting, I also felt out of sorts.  I hope one day I will be able to visit without feeling such a sense of loss.

I’ve finally concluded that it isn’t just the loss of Derrick and Lugene that I was feeling that day.  I also mourned the loss of the college girl I once was.  While I wouldn’t quite say that I was fearless as a freshman, I came close.  I thought nothing of pursuing whatever my heart desired while at MSU.  What happened?  Maybe I can find her once again.

The links above lead to posts I wrote concerning Derrick.

Derrick and I – April 2000


The girl I once was – 2002

Body and Other Four Letter Words Revisited


Body 2

Body and Other Four Letter Words

Due to a variety of circumstances over the last few weeks, this subject continues to be in my thoughts.  It is so disturbing to me how it is permissible in our society to treat others so differently based on something so arbitrary as height and weight.  Why is this acceptable?  I am so sick and tired of people not realizing that there are many complicated factors that play into eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and obesity.  There isn’t a quick fix.  Food can be an addiction just as powerful as drugs, sex, alcohol, or gambling.  Bullying just makes things infinitely worse.

I’ve discussed it before, but I was relentlessly bullied about my weight and height early in elementary school – grades K-3 – particularly in gym class and at recess.  At age 5, classmates commented daily on how short, fat, and ugly I was.  The funny thing is that while I may have been a stocky child, I was not fat at the time.  At some point, I started to believe them.  How was I ever supposed to feel good about my body?

Later in elementary school, I learned that I would never have children naturally.  I refuse to say children of my own.  When I do adopt, my child (or children) will most certainly be mine.  At age 10, it devastated me.  To make matters worse, one boy in my class found out about my diagnosis of Turner Syndrome and what it meant.  He proceeded to call me a deeply disturbing name as a result, making it clear to me that he knew what I perceived at the time to be private.

It changed me.  I vividly remember balling as soon as I came home, refusing for a time to even tell my parents what had happened it upset me so badly.  Today, looking back at what he called me, it is almost funny – at least from an adult perspective.  After that incident, I owned the fact that I had Turner Syndrome.  While I didn’t go around telling everyone, I did explain when asked what it meant.  I didn’t hide from it anymore, even though I had only recently learned of the diagnosis myself.  Unfortunately, it reinforced the shame I felt towards my body.

As an adult, I find it difficult to deal with my body image issues while dealing with the emotions that come with infertility as well.  I can’t deny it:  I don’t know when I will ever be at peace with my body when, in my mind, it has fundamentally failed me in what should be a basic function.  Somehow, I will have to come to terms with it.  I just don’t know how.

In the meantime, I am done.  I am done trying to please anyone other than myself.  I continue to refuse to play the games society demands of women young and old.  There are way too many young girls today who feel as if they are not enough, that their worth is determined by their weight (and/or height).  That is why I am sharing something so deeply personal.  I want anyone struggling with body image to know that he or she is not alone.  Weight and diet are not as simple as we make them out to be.

It breaks my heart to see my Facebook feed full of beautiful women struggling with body image and eating disorders and mothers at a loss on how to help their child rebuild self-esteem through bullying.  I see it daily.  Frankly, this topic scares me the most about parenthood.Body 1

Book Review: Marlena: A Novel by Julie Buntin

I enjoyed reading Marlena.  While it contains components of a YA (young adult) novel, I would classify it as emerging adult.  Fair warning:  Lots of drugs and sex involved.  The good news is that the drugs, and to a lesser extent, sex, drive the plot.  They are necessary to the plot, and fortunately, do not glamorize the consequences of either.  By the way, when I mention drugs here, I am including alcohol.

I didn’t read Marlena with a set purpose in mind.  It wasn’t a book club pick or anything.  In fact, I discovered it by browsing a selection of online books available through my library’s website.  It just sounded good.  It is ultimately a tale of two best friends growing up in a dull northern Michigan town.  It took a while for me to get into the book.  The protagonist, Cat, isn’t the easiest person to get to know.  Also, in the beginning, I didn’t get the fixation on drugs.  She clearly understands right from wrong, but she is fixated on her new best friend Marlena and making the worst possible choices for her life.  By approximately a quarter of the way through the book, I was hooked and found it difficult to put down.

Cat, at least the older, wiser version in the novel, nails what it is like to grow up, to love and lose.  There are so many powerful lines I found myself highlighting them in my Kindle copy, forgetting that it is a library book.  Below are a few of what I consider to be the most powerful lines in the novel.

Close enough to being a writer, isn’t it, working at a library? – Page 45

As an aspiring writer, I loved this quote.  Ultimately, Cat is a writer, but it took her a while to find her voice.  Her empathy for other young women is clearly demonstrated later in the novel in her approach to difficult young library patrons.

For so many women, the process of becoming requires two.  It’s not hard to make out the marks the other one left. – Page 96

This passage really made me think.  I thought of the friends, male and female, in both high school and college, who helped to shape the woman I became.  It made me think of what I wrote about W.M here in particular.  There is something to be said for reconnecting with old friends after years apart and seemingly nothing (and everything) has changed.

I think it’s pretty common for teenagers to fantasize about dying young.  We knew that time would force us into sacrifices – we wanted to flame out before making the choices that would determine who we became.  When you were an adult, all the promise of your life was foreclosed upon, every day just a series of compromises mitigated by little pleasures that distracted you from your former wildness, from your truth. – Pages 129-130

This struck a nerve with me as well.  First, I vividly remember being terrified of dying young as a teenager.  Both of my parents lost close relatives as teenagers, and those stories stayed with me.  Second, the fact that “time would force us into sacrifices” continues to be at the forefront of my mind.  I have always tried to find a way to leave as many doors open as possible.  There is just too much I want to do in life.

I was always aware, in some buried place, that girls my age had just entered their peak prettiness, and that once my pretty years were spent my value would begin leaking away.  I saw it on TV and in magazines, in the faces of my teachers and women in the grocery store, women who were no longer looked at … – Page 143

I so desperately want this not to be true, but it is true.  I loathe this fact about our culture.  Hopefully I will live long enough to see it change, permanently.

Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be. – Page 250

Thinking back to what I was like at ages 15-16, I like to think I was somehow stronger than Cat.  Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case; I could closely identify with Cat in the novel.  It makes the novel much darker.  There is a fine line between the successful teenage Cat and the degenerate.

I would recommend the book, especially if you love to write or like reading about love and loss (or even friendship in general).  Is the story sad?  Yes, but it is also full of hope.  It does seem that Cat is at least trying to deal with her loss, with varying degrees of success.

I know I have talked about this before, but I am convinced the right books find me at exactly the right time.  While I certainly wouldn’t call Marlena great literature, it addresses certain topics I would like to cover in my own writing.  I will be rereading this novel.

My First Love

Roald Dahl

Without a doubt, my first love happened to be books.  A conversation last week made me think of what books I loved as a child and how they shaped the adult I became.  Unfortunately, this list may date me.  The funny thing is, there is no way I could limit it to just one book, one series, one period of my childhood and teenage years.  Instead, I – and by extension you – will have to settle for categories.

Poetry –

Where the Sidewalk Ends – Shel Silverstein

This was the first book of poetry I ever owned, and I absolutely loved it.  It still holds a special place in my heart.

Favorite Children’s Authors –

Roald Dahl

All of Roald Dahl’s books were in vogue with elementary school teachers throughout my childhood, and frankly, elementary school would not have been the same without James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, among others.  Some of my favorite elementary school memories are tied to his books.  My first grade teacher read James and the Giant Peach, and none of us could get enough.  Even in 5th and 6th grades, the best part of the school day hands down happened to be the half hour after lunch recess when teachers would read to us.  I even know a certain 5th grade teacher who can fake out her students with The Witches.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

The popularity of the TV show, even in reruns, during my early elementary school years ensured that I would discover The Little House on the Prairie series eventually, but my 2nd second grade teacher read The Little House in the Big Woods to our class.  I couldn’t get enough.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work is at least part of the reason why I write.  I reread all of The Little House on the Prairie books as an adult, including Farmer Boy and The First Four Years.  I also read collections of her essays and letters, including West from Home.  Reading even more of her work made me admire her even more.

Favorite Series –                                                          

Anne of Green Gables

I read and loved all of the Anne of Green Gables books.  They captured my imagination as few others.  Anne reinforced my love of strong female protagonists.

Little House on the Prairie

See above.

Nancy Drew

I discovered Nancy Drew early in elementary school thanks to my Grandma who let me borrow her collection.  Once I read all of the traditional Nancy Drew novels, I started on the new series.  I could not get enough.  Unfortunately, I loved Nancy Drew so much that I burned out on mysteries.  I tried getting into the Kinsey Millhone mystery series by Sue Grafton as a young teenager, but soon became bored, even though I loved Kinsey.

Choose Your Own Adventure

These books were not great children’s literature, but they were entertaining.  I could not rest until I read every single version of the story.

Favorite Classics –                                                          

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I read this book the summer after 8th grade.  It took me most of the summer, but I lost myself in Civil War era Atlanta and Tara.  It was the perfect antidote to an 8th grade English teacher who spent most of the year on short stories more appropriate for younger students, along with spelling and grammar.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It saddens me that I didn’t love this novel more when I read it in 10th grade.  I am grateful that I reread it for book club as an adult.  It deserves its revered place in American literature.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Another book read as part of the 10th grade English curriculum, this is one that stayed with me long after high school.  Never underestimate teenagers.  Never.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Even though this isn’t an Oprah Book Club pick, I associate it with that era in my life.  I used to rush home from school to watch Oprah, and her book club influenced what I read in my later high school years.  There are many school of thoughts as to whether or not this novel should be taught to teenagers.  I understand both sides, but I did love it.  I am glad that teenagers can find it even if it isn’t taught.

Edgar Allen Poe

I swear I came across one or two of Poe’s stories in an ancient collection of spooky stories in my elementary school library.  I question the memory simply due to the fact that it was an elementary school library.  Then again, the book itself was so old that it could have possibly dated from when there was a high school at the same location.  I like to think that I really did come across Poe in elementary school, and that it was his short stories that fed my love of ghost stories.  I have no idea why today’s high school students hate studying Poe – and they do.  I loved it.

Favorite Historical Fiction –

Christy and Julie by Catherine Marshall

These books introduced me to historical fiction, the Cumberland Gap, and Appalachia.  I loved them, even if I probably wouldn’t pick them up now.  They did spark my love of historical fiction.

Honorable Mentions –

Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred D. Taylor

These books, depicting racism in the segregated South, made me recognize just how much I took my life for granted.  The children in these books faced so many obstacles on a daily basis just to get to school.

Randall’s Wall by Carol Fenner

The book itself isn’t all that remarkable, even though it does have a good anti-bullying message.  The reason I included it is due to its author.  As part of a young writer’s club in elementary school, I had the opportunity to meet her.  I even had her sign my copy of the book, and I almost missed the bus.  Another favorite elementary school memory tied to books, reading, and writing.

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

My Mom taught this novella as part of the 6th grade social studies curriculum.  She also happened to be my 6th grade social studies teacher.  She was the first teacher I had that used literature to teach social studies.  As a future social studies teacher, I plan to do the same.  My Mom may not know this, but she is largely responsible for my interest in teaching social studies and Latin America in general.  Recently I saw 6th graders carrying around The Cay; it is still taught nearly 25 years later.


The Competitive Edge


There is something bothering me in the text of one of my textbooks this semester.  While this particular book doesn’t necessarily suggest that teachers work to try to reduce competition in the classroom, the book explains that that idea is out there.  In many ways, I couldn’t disagree with that idea more.  As competitive as school can be on all levels, I think we get it all wrong as it is now.  At the same time, making high school less competitive is a good recipe for failure.

Let me explain.  Increasingly it seems as though we as a society are intolerant of people who do not fit certain molds.  We expect everyone to perform academically at such a level that they will be well prepared for college.  I keep coming back to the idea that college isn’t for everyone.  I’m not saying that most people aren’t capable of completing the work; I’m saying that not everyone is a good fit.  Instead of trying to force everyone into a certain mold, maybe we can help people, particularly teenagers, figure what their strengths are and what they enjoy doing.  What is wrong with someone pursuing an education at a trade school if that is what he or she enjoys doing?  It isn’t that I don’t believe that everyone needs some type of formal training and/or education after high school.  I do.  It is an economic reality.  What I don’t agree with is trying to get everyone to fit one version of life after high school:  the traditional four year college degree.  Instead, I believe students need more help and support figuring out what they want to do upon graduation, whether or not they decide to pursue a college education.  Students who would rather do physical work or pursue something other than academics should be supported as much as students who can’t get to college soon enough.

What saddens me is that there are only narrow definitions of success in most high schools.  Either you succeed academically or athletically.  If you are extremely talented, you might succeed at both.  What about the students who like to build?  The students who are artistic?  What about the students who like to create?  It may not always be the case, but it does not seem as though their achievements are celebrated enough at most schools.

At many high schools, sport dominate.  That is all fine and good.  Sports are great for the students who are talented enough to compete.  What about the majority of students who can’t compete at that level?  What is out there?  The answer in many cases is nothing.  For example, I have no athletic ability whatsoever.  That doesn’t mean I dislike sports.  I know that I am not alone.  I’m not sure where I came across the idea, but what would be wrong with organized, non-competitive sports too?  In essence, a high school version of the college intramural system.  When I first came across that statement about how high school is too competitive, high school sports came to mind immediately.  Students who aren’t athletically gifted need opportunities to develop physical talents too, outside of a required general gym class.  There should be room for both competitive and non-competitive sports.

My larger point is simply this:  We all need to recognize that all individuals have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  We can’t expect perfection out of everyone.  At the same time, natural talents need to be encouraged, developed.  Students need some type of competition.  College admissions are more competitive than ever.  No matter what opportunities students pursue after graduation, they will face competition.