Category Archives: Virtual Appreciation Notes

Virtual Appreciation Note: Higher Ed Edition

By having married into the academic world (my husband is a college professor) I have had opportunities many elementary school teachers don’t have. I think most elementary school teachers get to learn from their colleagues and friends and I have definitely gotten to do so over the years. I’ve also gotten to learn from my husband’s colleagues and friends.

My first year of full time teaching happened while my husband was completing his PhD and adjunct teaching. We were both surprised at how often one of us would say, “My students are doing…” or “My students need more support with…” and the other would reply, “Mine too.” We hadn’t expected to find so many connections between fourth graders and undergrads. That probably helped prepare me for the learning I could do from his colleagues in the history department as well as friends in political science, sociology, chemistry, geography, and more. I know very little about most of those subjects but I do believe that strong teaching strategies are useful no matter who or where you teach. Obviously I am not going to walk into my 3rd grade classroom and behave exactly as my husband would do in his college classroom, but there is much we do that aligns.

Information and Technology Convergence Center

This building will forever be associated with the folks below in my mind (whether that makes sense or not is of little relevance to me).

When I reflect on what I have learned and am still learning from the world of higher education (even more crucial for me as I am adjunct teaching currently) there are three folks who come to mind at once. Three people who I rarely get to see in person (even pre-pandemic) but still use what they’ve taught me and I still turn to them and read what they share.

The first one brings me so much joy not only for all she’s taught me in recent years but because I actually knew her when we were both in high school (she was friends with my sister) and meeting her again as an adult was such a treat. Martha Burtis is one of the most thoughtful, reflective, brilliant people I’ve been lucky enough to know. Part of my feelings, I’m sure, are related to how many interests we share. We are both parenting kids of similar ages. We both love the theater. We share a fascination with and some hesitancy about technology. Not only have I learned from Martha’s blog posts and tweets, but she has always been willing to answer my questions and help me think through things when I’m stuck.

Ryan Brazell is another higher ed person who has helped me, whether he realizes it or not, as both a teacher and as a human being. Ryan’s compassion for others and ability to see from multiple perspectives has helped me step outside of my lived experiences a bit more and begin to recognize the immense width and breadth of lives that I have not known. I have immense respect for people who live their lives genuinely and without artifice. I think that’s a huge challenge in our world and Ryan is a wonderful model for me in doing this. Ryan is another whose tweets continue to educate me as he shares ideas, information, and writing from many people I would not otherwise see. It is an absolute gift for me to have such a wealth of perspectives and thinking coming my way.

Finally, Jesse Stommel continually reminds me to keep the focus on my students and on their learning. His tweets and his writing are all centered on students as people and learners. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but somehow it still is. We’ve been trained to see students as scores and grades and compliant beings rather than as full people, worthy of respect and care and trust in their own rights. Jesse helps me keep that at the center of what I do.

Martha, Ryan, and Jesse all serve (as all the people I’ve written Virtual Appreciation Notes to do) as small voices in my head or little angels on my shoulder pushing me in the right direction when I need that reminder. This may come in ways they don’t recognize at all as a tweet or blog post or article will cross my path at just the right moment. Or it may come, as it has time and time again, deliberately from them as they reach out, publicly or privately, to encourage or nudge or shove me as needed.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Franki Sibberson

Franki Sibberson has been inspiring me for almost all of my career. For at least as long as I was wise enough to know who she is. For one thing, she wrote multiple books while she was a classroom teacher. As one who has opted to remain a classroom teacher for more than two decades and who wanted to stretch and try new things, Franki was a model. She proved to me it could be done. (Whether or not I could actually do it was different, of course.) Franki collaborated with many different people on many different projects, all while teaching her class of elementary students. (I use past tense because she did retire last year.) Just in case you aren’t fully impressed yet, Franki served as president of NCTE while a classroom teacher. She’s one of a few people I look at and think, “I want to be her when I grow up.”


Another area that makes me appreciate Franki immensely is children’s literature. She reads and reads and reads and shares and shares and shares. She’s likely cost me a pretty penny as I’ve purchased books she wrote about, but my students have benefited greatly from how widely Franki reads and how generously she shares about books.

Franki has also been a model for me of what it means to be a white woman who wants to do the work of challenging racism, homophobia, white supremacy, ableism, and on and on. I often feel so unsure and lacking in knowledge that I feel frozen. Seeing others, like Franki, admit their own hesitations and still move forward, keep learning, and take action is inspiring and helpful, which feels like an understatement.

It is a gift to be teaching in an age in which it is so easy to learn from others you may never get the chance to meet. Between twitter and her co-authored blog, I get to learn from Franki on a regular basis, rather than just when a new article or book would get published. Of course, that assumes that folks are willing to share as generously and freely as Franki does. She may not be in the classroom anymore, but she’s definitely still teaching. And I am grateful.

Virtual Appreciation Note: SLA

I haven’t written one of these in a while and that feels wrong because my appreciation for a wide range of educators has only grown in the past few months. Watching others navigate online schooling or hybrid schooling or in person schooling with all the pandemic fears has increased my appreciation for educators in general and specific ones.

For the past decade, at this moment in time I would be prepping to head to Philly for Educon. The first year I went was the second year of the conference and I was beyond excited. Until I actually got to Philly and then I had serious imposter syndrome and asked myself what I thought I was doing there. When I finally psyched myself up enough to leave the hotel and head over to SLA it was so worth it. The students, the families, the conference sessions, the attendees, everything far exceeded my expectations. At the time, all of the students wore lab coats that said SLA on them as their school uniform. Lots of them were decorated in fabulous ways. I loved them. I will never forget summoning up the courage to go into Chris Lehmann‘s office and ask if I could buy a lab coat instead of an Educon t-shirt. I’m sure he found it somewhat odd, but he immediately made it happen. I also vividly remember Zac Chase being in the office and saying to me, with a knowing nod, “Nerd chic.”

The next year, my husband insisted on going with me to Educon and for the past decade it has been a joint venture. Our kids were quite young when we began going and it was like a special weekend away for the two of us. Educon has been a gift, both professionally and personally.

I am an elementary school teacher. I have never taught high schoolers and I don’t ever plan to do so. However, I have learned so much for time spent at SLA and from the teachers who work there. The way students are truly at the heart of everything, every decision, every change, is amazing. Many schools say, and I think, truly believe, that students are at the heart. But it’s rare to see it in action the way it is at SLA.

So many SLAers are people I call friends now. Which never ceases to amaze me. Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase co-authored a phenomenal book, one I love to pick up again and again when I need reminders of what we can do and should be in education. Each of them blogs (sometimes more often than other times) and being able to read their words and thoughts continues to inspire me to ask more questions, not accept the status quo, look more deeply, and push back. Diana Laufenberg hasn’t blogged in a while and I miss her voice there. It’s all good though because she has given me enough to last a lifetime through her tweets, her work in history and government education, and how much I’ve learned about life on a farm. Oh, and the travel tips! Diana is brilliant. And she makes sure it all gets done. With the focus where it needs to be. It’s really quite impressive but sometimes that’s hard to remember because she makes it all look so easy.

Educon isn’t happening this year and I truly think that’s the right call. A virtual conference would be a ton of work (not that an in person one isn’t but they’ve got a lot of practice with that) and it couldn’t really measure up to what we’ve known. Even as I know, intellectually, that I support the decision not to have Educon this year, it breaks my heart a bit. Not getting a weekend with the myriad educators that make their way to Philly, not being inspired and challenged to think more deeply and differently, not grabbing quick conversations with some of my favorite people in the world, I will deeply miss that. I am more grateful than I can say to everyone at SLA, not just the few named here, for all they do to improve education everyday. It is awe inspiring.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Kelly Wickham Hurst

If you aren’t following Kelly Wickham Hurst on twitter you are missing out. Not just on the knowledge, although that is a huge thing to be missing, but also on the joy and fun. Kelly is brilliant and willing to share her brilliance. She is also hilarious and finds joy and humor in many different things.

Of course, maybe it’s just that I can relate sometimes:

I love those kinds of tweets from her. It’s a reminder to me that Kelly is human, in spite of my frequent sense that she is far beyond that. If she says to read something, I pay attention. If she’s talking about an issue or question or article, I’m listening. She’s sharing wisdom regularly and I’m grateful.

I feel like I first came across Kelly through Heather Armstrong’s blog, Dooce, but if so, I can’t find anything as early as I thought I’d seen it. There are a couple of posts, one from 2017 and a podcast from 2018 there with Kelly. So maybe. In October of 2018 (or so), I had the chance to be a part of a conversation with Kelly thanks to Larry Ferlazzo‘s Classroom Q & A podcast. We talked about our issues with dress codes.

Kelly founded and leads Being Black at School, an organization that is working to make schools safer and more equitable for Black students. Kelly was a teacher for 23 years. She knows the classroom and school realities. She also knows policy and data and advocacy. That’s a powerful combination. If you’re looking for an organization to support in this moment, I can not recommend this one highly enough. It’s not likely on a lot of radars and may not get the same influx of support many organizations are getting right now but it should. Its work is crucial to our society.

In addition to all that Kelly shares and teaches, she is who she is. She lives life genuinely and passionately. I am grateful for that too. She models for me what it is to be a woman, an educator, a mom, and more and to do it all while working to improve our society. I’m listening and watching and learning as best I can.

Virtual Appreciation Note: The Minors

After more than two decades of marriage, I know I am a better teacher because of my husband. As we are both in education (although at opposite ends of the age spectrum for our students) we learn from each other all the time. Talking about work is a different thing for us than it would be if we were in different fields.

I’m thinking about this because this appreciation note is to two people: Kass and Cornelius Minor. Not only are they both educators and, I feel fairly confident, make each other better at it all the time, but they work together in a variety of settings.

Kass and Cornelius are experts in literacy but literacy isn’t their first priority, students are. Their work always has students in front. Following them on twitter, reading their writing, hearing them speak at conferences, no matter where you will always find that they trust students, care for students, and are focused on students. It means their work around literacy is even more powerful because it comes from knowledge of students and their learning.

Equally important is the work Kass and Cornelius do around equity. I follow a lot of people on twitter and the ones I follow most closely are usually people I know well. Kass and Cornelius are not people I know well but they are on my list of folks I read closely. I know their tweets will be genuinely who they are and through that will help me learn. Their own thoughts, things they share, and their retweets all are a part of my learning about how to be a more equitable educator and how to do that work beyond my own classroom.

They make it look easy but I feel confident it isn’t. That’s one of many reasons I appreciate them.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Audrey Watters

As I’ve been thinking about the people I want to appreciate I realized that one of the things I am most grateful for are the efforts being done that I can’t do. Audrey Watters does so many things I can’t do. I also appreciate her because she does things I’m unwilling to do. She’s smarter and more diligent than almost anyone else I know.

For years Audrey has written about educational technology. She has followed more news streams, even ones that are more promotional than meaningful, than I even knew existed. She analyzes what she reads, makes connections, and brings it all together in meaningful ways for the rest of us.

In the midst of this time, which has likely cost Audrey a significant percentage of her income as she cannot travel to give talks, she has offered to speak to classes anywhere. And when Audrey speaks, she gives it all she’s got. Every talk she does is a new talk. And she publishes those talks on her site. Again, she’s capable of personalizing talks in ways that never cease to astound me.

Audrey is not only brilliant and works super hard, but she is generous and funny. Interactions with Audrey, online or in person, result in my learning something new and being generally happier. I truly don’t know how she does the work she does, for a multitude of reasons, but I know we all are better as a result of it.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Jess Lifshitz

As I’ve thought about these notes and written the first few, I’ve come to realize how much it means to actually get to meet someone. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Matt, Julia, and Sherri in person at some point. I’ve not had that with Jess. It hasn’t changed the fact that Jess is someone from whom I learn regularly. Someone who helps me expand my understanding of what reading and writing can be in school. Someone who has taught me about the realities of living in the LGBTQ+ community, both as an educator and as a person.

Jess’s blog, if you don’t read it, is another one of those that I wait to open. Most of Jess’s writing is about lessons and units with her students. But her latest post, once her mom gave her the okay to publish it, illustrates poignantly, beautifully, and at least a little painfully the reality for many teachers, students, and families right now. The posts about her lessons and units are not only instructive for those of us who might like to try this work, but also reflective and insightful. Jess doesn’t just share what she did and what her students did, she digs deep with it and brings us inside.

Jess’s work in literacy is about so much more than reading and writing. She uses her language arts time with students to help them see the world beyond their neighborhood, to help them explore big issues in our society. Jess’s students are learning not only how to read and write but the power that exists in reading and writing. It is truly inspirational. But not just inspirational. Because Jess shares it all online with the rest of us, we can feel inspired and also feel that we can give it a try.


Virtual Appreciation Note: Sherri Spelic

I have not done a good job of keeping up with writing these appreciations the way I would have liked. Sigh. So many things I have not kept up with the way I would have liked.

I don’t know how I first found Sherri (edifiedlistener) online. She teaches elementary students P.E. and she lives in Austria so she doesn’t fit in any neat box for why I would know her. But I am so glad I do. First of all, she has completely challenged my thinking about P.E. teachers. Which clearly needed challenging!

Her writing is absolutely gorgeous. One gets the impression that Sherri writes about anything she feels passionately about. Which I greatly respect. This includes her students and teaching, of course. It can also include nature (which I love more theoretically than in reality so reading about it is perfect for me). It also includes equity and systemic racism. Hearing the perspective of a woman of color who grew up in the U.S., has family in the U.S., but lives in western Europe, is fascinating. And I think really important. It is easy for me to get caught up in hearing the same voices or perspectives and thinking I’m hearing everything. Sherri helps me widen what I hear, both with her own writing and with the voices she retweets.

When posts from different people pop up in my RSS reader, I have noticed I respond in different ways. Some are immediate clicks because I know it’ll be fun or light or because it’ll quite possibly be something that only needs a glance. Other posts sit there for a while because I know they need my full attention. I know some people’s writing can’t be read while I’m multitasking in any way. Sherri’s definitely fits in that category. I want to be able to savor her writing. Not surprisingly then, her book of essays is absolutely wonderful. The title alone had sold me, Care at the Core: Conversational Essays on Identity, Education, and Power.

Sherri is, from all I can tell, authentically herself through her writing, on twitter, and in person. I’m not sure that can be said for most of us. It is hard, I think, to be authentically ourselves all the time. It is something about Sherri that I both respect and attempt to learn from.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Julia Torres

A couple of years ago my children and I had the pleasure of dinner with Julia Torres. I mention this because when her name comes up one of my children will inevitably say, “The queen!” and the other will say, “We stan.” The love for Julia in my household is strong is what I’m saying.

If you aren’t familiar with her, Julia is a librarian at the high school level, having been a language arts teacher prior to that. Her day job is a huge one and she somehow seems to manage to get the right books in the hands of the right kids again and again. A big piece of that, I think, comes from the fact that Julia listens to kids and sees them as full human beings. Her respect for the kids in her care results in respect and, often I suspect, adoration.

In addition to a day job that is seriously demanding, Julia does an immense amount to move our profession forward. She is a co-founder of Disrupt Texts and the work being done there is life-changing, for both kids and teachers. Julia is a Heinemann Fellow and writes frequently.

That, I think, is what makes me view Julia with such awe. She doesn’t rest or sit back and watch. She steps up, again and again and again. She does not hesitate from saying what needs to be said. She does not hold back out of fear. This means that following her – on twitter, reading her blog, attending her sessions at conferences – is always worth it. Because of Julia I have expanded my personal reading as well as my classroom library and read alouds and I am far more aware and thoughtful about choices I make in books I choose, language I use, and lessons I teach. For that I am immensely grateful.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Matt Kay

Somewhere along the line, in the more than a decade of attending EduCon, I realized that if Matt Kay was doing a session, I wanted to be there.(One of the best and worst things about EduCon is that there are several folks I feel that way about…) Matt is an English teacher at SLA and I would love to take his class. I enjoyed my English classes in high school and liked my teachers, but if I could have had the teachers at SLA I’d have made the trade.

Since I first learned that whatever Matt had to say was something I wanted to hear, he has written a book, Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. It’s clearly designed for teachers of high school students, maybe middle school students. I teach 3rd graders. It doesn’t matter. The book is brilliant. When my parents were here visiting not long ago I loaned the book to my dad. He is not and never has been a teacher. He was a computer programmer. He loved the book. Loved it so much he bought a copy so my mother (a nurse) could read it as well. It’s a book that should be read by anyone and everyone.

Take a look at his twitter bio, it’s awesome. He’s a teacher and a writer, but also the executive director of the Slam League in Philadelphia and he coaches basketball and football. That’s a range of interests and, more astoundingly to me, skills that is impressive. When Matt shares videos of his students in the Slam League it is inspiring.

As I think about writing these notes it occurs to me that the people who come to my mind are all folks who put students first. The things Matt does are done with students in mind. When he writes, the book or his columns, the writing is for educators but it is all about how to do better by our students. The respect and care for kids should be a given, but we know it isn’t always, and very few do it as well as Matt. He is also always looking for ways to do it better and credits those who help him in that way. He called out Zac Chase when he shared a strategy he’d learned from Zac to support his students.

I read Matt’s writing and attend his sessions and follow him on twitter because I know he’ll show me new and better ways to do and be, as a teacher and as a person.