Sunday, November 30, 2014

Middle Schoolers Aren't So Scary Anymore

If you had asked me a year ago if I wanted to work in a middle school, the answer would have been no. I had always known that I wanted to be a teacher when I was little. I had always wanted to be an elementary teacher to be exact. The thought of middle school had never crossed my mind. I had always been scared of the middle schooler. But now that my own kids are older and I am working in a middle school, I find that they aren't as scary as I once thought. They really are just big kids, trying to find their way and what I found, is that they are trying to hold on to their childhood just as much as they want to grow-up at the same time. In the past few months, I've seen this a lot.

Back in October, I was in an eighth grade science class. The students were working on a group activity and so they were talking, some conversations were on task, but there was an excitement in the air because it was Friday and it was Halloween. Some were talking about their plans that night. Then one student asked me where I lived and if I gave out "the good candy." So I asked him which elementary school did he attend. It was the same one as my kids. He looked at me with a grin on his face.

He asked, "Did they take the bus or were they walkers?" 


Did they have to take a tunnel to walk home or no tunnel.

No tunnel.

I told him if he found me, I would make sure that I had good candy for him. 

He and all his friends did find me that night. I was sitting at the bottom of my staircase on my phone deleting junk mail from my in-box when a six foot Tigger caught my eye at the front door. It was later in the evening so the trick-or-treaters had died down a bit, but there was this group of boys standing on my front stoop, all in costume, and the boy that I had the conversation with earlier that day was pleasantly surprised to have found me that night. I don't know whether he forgot about our conversation in science class or if he was really trying to find me, but I had a stash of full size candy bars for all of them and they were thankful that they found me. 

Earlier in the day, Ryan was trying to come up with his own plans with his friends. I asked him a number of times what they were going to do and he didn't know. I kept telling him that if he was going to go trick-or-treating that he needed a costume, that he couldn't go out without at least attempting to put together an outfit. These are the middle school years, this is what middle schoolers do, they want to hang on to the fun of Halloween, but none of them are willing to make the decision and say let's go trick-or-treating and then decide what they are going to wear. Ryan had gone home on the bus to a friend's house that day. I called him up to find out what their plans were. Did they even have plans? They knew they were going to go trick-or-treating but this group of boys did not have costumes. It was 6:00 on Halloween night. So I went into the basement and found our bin of dress-up clothes and old costumes. I dug-up an egg costume, a bacon costume, and a hotdog costume. I drove over to the friend's house and they were thankful for them. Ryan knew when Halloween was, he knew he had to dress-up, but the decision making process for these middle schoolers is hard. They are struggling between trying to grow-up and still wanting to be a kid. 

Just the day before, I was sitting with a few students in my eighth grade resource class. It was toward the end of class and we were talking about Halloween coming up and if they were going to go trick-or-treating. Again, middle school is that transition time and when you are talking to eighth graders you never know if you will get an enthusiastic "yes" because it's all about the candy or if you will get the eye roll because they think they are too old for trick-or-treating. On this day, it was the enthusiastic "yes" and then they told me about their plans and what they were going to be. The conversation then turned to Christmas and one girl said that she believed in Santa. This surprised me. This is eighth grade, they are thirteen and fourteen years old. But here I was sitting in the middle of a conversation about how they believe in Santa because the cookies are always gone on Christmas morning or how a piece of red velvet was caught on a hook on the fireplace. What I really was in awe about though was that none of the other students that could have overhear our conversation broke the magic of the moment. They just sat and continued doing what they were doing.

I see my own kids trying to hold on to the magic of their childhoods. Timmy went to the mall the other day with his friends. They all pooled their money together and had a picture taken with Santa. Goofy, silly high school boys, taking a picture with Santa...I love it! We took our own family Santa picture the other day. We have been taking our family picture with Santa for seventeen years now. No one complains, no one says they are too old, we just do it, it's tradition. When the kids were sitting with Santa, the photographer was trying to arrange my four, now big kids, for the picture. She said to Ryan, who is about to be thirteen, "I know you aren't going to like this, but I need you to sit on Santa's lap." Ryan jumped up from his spot and yelled, "Yay," with a huge smile on his face. Because he was so enthusiastic to sit on Santa's lap, Santa said he would take a selfie with him. How cool is Santa!?!

So here we are at the beginning to the Christmas Season. My house is all decorated because Shannon and Molly are HUGE Christmas fans! They wait and anticipate all year for Christmas. They plan their activities and have their "to-do" lists and look for different Christmas crafts to keep them busy. Buddy and Jovie our Elves on the Shelf have returned. It is year five of them visiting our house. It is getting harder and harder to come up with ideas for them to do. Molly is in fifth grade. I was thinking that this would be the year that Buddy and Jovie would start to tone it down. But Molly was so enthusiastic about their arrival. She can't wait to see where they are each morning. She is at the age that I can't exactly tell if she still believes or if she is playing along with the whole thing because she wants to hold-on to her childhood. How many times have you heard, "If you don't believe, you won't receive." 

So just like I don't like looking in the mirror and seeing another laugh line on my face and knowing that I'm getting older, my kids worry about getting older as well. They don't want to let go of their childhood. Yes, they want more independence and they want to do more stuff on their own without their mom around, but their is a part of them that wants to stay young, that wants it to be okay to go trick-or-treating and not be looked at as too old to be participating in the fun of getting candy. They want to sit on Santa's lap...or believe in the elves.

 So even though I thought Buddy and Jovie were going to start to fade a bit this year, they are still going strong. They will just have to come up with some new ideas for the next 24 days before Christmas.

Monday, October 13, 2014


It is Saturday morning and the Nealons have nothing on the schedule today. What a pleasant change of pace. Shannon has a break in her soccer schedule at the moment, the boys' basketball seasons haven't officially started yet so they only have practices during the week, and Molly's dance performing troupe hasn't had any weekend performances yet either. 

I find myself sitting at the computer, in a quiet house, reflecting on the word change. Change, it is one of those words that is used everyday, one of those words that we say and don't think about and yet, we do think about change all the time. As I sit here, I can see just a touch of change in the color of the leaves on the trees outside my window as the season changes. I can see my flower pots on the front stoop that we changed out to mums to replace the dying summer flowers. I tell my kids to change their clothes, change the channel, or change the subject. People talk about having a change of heart, changing their minds, or needing a change of scenery. People have used the word change in campaign slogans and there are websites like you can use to start or sign a petition to change anything under the sun. Go to Pinterest and you can find lots of inspirational quotes like, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

People like to divide the world into two groups, the haves and the have nots, the leaders and the followers, the givers and the takers, and then you have the people that want change, embrace change, fight for change, and those that do not. But the thing is, you can't stop change, everything changes, it's just all in how you deal with it. 

The Nealons have been going through some changes. The biggest one is that I have gone back to work. For twelve years, I have been the mom at home taking care of the house and the kids, doing the laundry, making the meals, paying the bills, figuring out schedules, making doctor and dentist and orthodontist appointments, carpooling kids to all their after school get the picture. Now I'm the mom that STILL does all these things (that has not changed) AND I go to work outside the home. What has changed is getting a text from one of my kids to meet them in the hall at bell change because they left their Spanish homework on their desk and they need it for next block. No more running up to school with a lunch box that was left on the kitchen counter. No more last minute requests at 10:00 at night for me to go out the next day to get whatever it is they need while they are at school. 

I have been thinking about going back to work for a while, trying to figure out where the right fit for me would be. I NEVER would have thought about working at a middle school. Middle school seemed a bit scary to me. I loved my little second graders from all those years ago. I have fond memories of those years. But things change, out mindset changes. My own children have been or are middle schoolers now and they're not so scary anymore. My head was always at elementary school and yet now I am spending everyday with eighth graders. I was talking with another teacher friend on a Friday afternoon. He and I taught at the same elementary school years ago, and he was telling me that just a year ago he thought, "No way, not doing middle school," and now he loves it. We change.

Another change...Shannon is DRIVING! How did this happen? They grow up so fast! I can't be old enough to have a kid that can drive! We've heard it all before. 

There is a line from the book The Fault in Our Stars, "I fell in love the way you fall asleep slowly and then all at once." This line of "slowly and all at once" can apply to so many things in my life, like slowly watching Shannon for 16 years grow into the amazing, wonderful person she is today and at the same time, the Shannon that stands before me has appeared all at once. How can this be?

So even though it is not a new concept that the only constant thing in your life is that life changes, I find myself thinking about it more lately. Shannon is driving, we are starting the process of looking at colleges, Timmy started high school this year, Molly is my LAST kid in her LAST year of elementary school. Where has the time gone? It all happened slowly and all at once.

I cannot stop all these changes, but I can change my mindset. It's all good, this change thing. It's still a bit scary when your kid pulls away from the house in a car all by themselves. I check my text to make sure she made it to where she was going. Each stage of life my kids enter they gain a little bit more freedom. Inside of me there is a tug-of-war of letting go just a little bit more and being the proud parent of the people they all growing up into, and then there is the me wanting to pull them back with all my might and keep them close to me. This parenting job is tricky busy. It's an emotional roller coaster. 

My phone just buzzed with a text. Chris just registered Shannon for her first college open house. 

They are growing up slowly and all at once.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Lessons from the Fairy Tales

Molly and I are on day 311 of our read aloud streak. I have been reading to her everyday for 311 days straight. We have read 18 books so far together. Molly has been very much into fairy tales lately. She has a book of Hans Christian Andersen stories that she pulls out every so often and now she is reading from these fairy tale books that were mine when I was little. Sometimes she enjoys reading a story from start to finish in one sitting instead of a whole chapter book.


During the school year, I watch very little TV. By the time the kids get home from all their sports, eating dinner, and then getting ready for the next day, it is time to go to bed. But recently we got Netflix and being that's it's summer, I've watched a few series that I have heard are good. I've seen commercials for the series Once Upon A Time and tried to watch it a couple of times, but it is one of those series that you need to watch each week to understand what's going on. I've tried to DVR series before, but by the time I get a chance to sit down (or lie down in bed) to watch something, I usually fall asleep and by the time I get around to it, it's already the next week and a new episode and I just never seem to keep up. 

But now that we have Netflix, I can watch at my own pace and so I thought Molly and I could watch Once Upon A Time together since she has been so interested in fairy tales. 
We are loving it! Every time a new character is introduced, she tries to figure out which fairy tale character he or she is. She has gone back to my old fairy tale books to reread the original stories to refresh her memory or read the story for the first time if she hasn't read that story yet. The other day, Molly came to me and asked if we had any chapter books that are based on fairy tales. I told her we could look through our book shelves.

This is what we found!

Years ago if you were to ask me what genre I enjoyed reading the most, I would have said realistic fiction and historical fiction. I never would have answered fantasy. It is not what I would have grabbed off the shelf of a bookstore or the library. But since Molly and I have started this read aloud streak, I have noticed that most of the books do have fantasy in them. We have read four Mary Poppins books, fantasy, Roald Dahl books, fantasy, The Wizard of Oz, fantasy, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, fantasy. We have only read a few books that are realistic fiction but I have really enjoyed these fantasy books we have read. 

Back at the end of the school year, Molly's teacher told me that they were starting their fantasy unit in language arts and asked me to bring in some books for a read aloud to introduce the lesson. When I started researching a bit, this whole genre of fantasy, I realized there are all these sub-categories of fantasy, many, many sub-categories. So to try to make it simple for Molly's fourth grade class, I broke it down into three categories: high fantasy, low fantasy, and portal fantasy. 

High fantasy takes place in an alternate world, there really isn't anything of this world in the story. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would be a great example. I never read it. Again, I always though I didn't like fantasy.

Low Fantasy is set in our ordinary everyday world with some magical elements sprinkled throughout the book. Molly and I read A Snicker of Magic, and Savvy. I really enjoyed these books.

Portal Fantasy takes place in our everyday world and an alternate world. There is some sort of portal between the two worlds. The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe are all example of portal books. They all start out in this world, but the main characters all find themselves in an alternate world through a portal. 

The TV series Once Upon a Time is a portal fantasy. The fairy tale characters have been cursed from their world and are now in our world. The show goes back and forth between present time, in our world, and then flashbacks to when they were in their fantasyland. What I love about the series is that the two villains are Snow White's evil step mother and Rumpelstiltskin. We hate these characters. They are mean and evil, why wouldn't you? But little by little, you learn about their background and why they are the way that they are. It's a little bit like the play Wicked. We all grew up scared of the Wicked Witch of the West, but the play explains how she got to be the way that she is, you start to empathize with her. You start to understand her. 

And shouldn't we all do a little more of that? I wonder if adults had a little more empathy for each other, maybe the world would be a little bit gentler. It's all in the point of view, we need to understand more that no one side can be completely right and the other side completely wrong. Molly and I just finished listening to the book The Julian Chapter. It is Julian's point of view from the book Wonder which is an awesome book about bullying and empathy and a whole lot of good things with great discussions to be had with your children. Each section of Wonder is written from a different point of view. Every one is represented, except the bully, Julian. The Julian Chapter is his story. We listened to it during the car ride to Ocean City this past weekend. I did not feel sorry for Julian, it does not excuse him from the things that he did in the book Wonder, but you do start to understand him better and as an adult, and a parent, it made me think about ways to teach kids kindness because Julian truly didn't understand what he did was first.

Right now, Molly and I are reading Rump. It is Rumpelstiltskin's story. We are only up to chapter three, but we already can empathize with him. The first line is, "My mother named me after a cow's rear end." Think about it, the kid doesn't have a chance with a name like Rump. Molly has been reading these fairy tales that are hundreds of years old. We are reading books and watching a TV show that are based on these stories from hundreds of years ago. There must be a reason why these stories have stood the test of time. They lead us to use our imagination, to add on to the the stories, to come up with prequels and sequels. There are lessons to be learned.

I have learned two things this summer from our reading; first, I like fantasy, low fantasy and portal fantasy and fair tale fantasy. The second, is that the more you read books, especially ones that have good vs. evil themes, ones with a definite bad guy, that bad guy is never exactly what they appear to be, there always is a reason for the way that they are, and if we could just apply that to the real world, to that grumpy person we just met in the mall or the lady that yelled at you in the grocery store, that maybe before we judge them, we take a moment to think that maybe this person is having bad day and that we should

Kindness Counts!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Molly's Mantra

Back in June, when the boys went to basketball camp, I took the girls up to New York to visit Grandma in the Red House. When we arrived, my mom had a new sign by her front door and a new statue. As soon as I saw it, I thought of Molly. THAT IS MOLLY! Look at her, hands outstretched, smile on her face, ready to soak in whatever the day has to offer her. Throughout the years, I have taken thousands of pictures of my kids. I was always a big picture taker, even before the cell phone cameras. My kids know that I need to take a picture of them to document the soccer and basketball wins, the dance performances, the birthdays, the holidays, and the everyday ordinary stuff in our life as well.

So when I saw my mom's new statue, my mind went right to all the pictures I have of Molly with her arms outstretched, savoring the moments. 

New York

Harpers Ferry
Even with a broken arm!

Newport, Rhode Island

Plymouth, New Hampshire

Dollywood, Tennessee

Great Falls, VA

Smokey Mountains, Tennessee

Lake Winnipeasaukee, NH

Poconos, PA

Charleston, SC

Montauk, Long Island

New York City

Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay Long Island

Central Park

Drayton Hall, SC

Kiawah, SC

So as you can see, her arms seem to always be outstretched. It doesn't seem to matter where we are or what we are doing, she likes to soak in an experience, take it all in, she notices the big details as well as all the little details of a day. When we went to Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt's house, she searched through the museum to find all the answers to the scavenger hunt. When we walked on the nature trail to the bay, she stopped at each tree to look at the leaves to identify them. She noticed that the north shore of Long Island is hard and rocky and that the south shore is soft and sandy. When we got to the water, she noticed the crabs and the shells and the horseshoe crabs and the birds and you could almost hear the wheels turning in her head as she thought and processed and learned and just was taking it all in.

Back in May, Molly and I went to NYC with her dance performing troupe. We saw the musical Newsies and she just fell in love with it. She has watched the Disney movie dozens of times, can sing all the songs by heart, and can recite certain parts of the movie with a thick New York accent. One of the songs is Seize the Day and that has become her mantra. This ten year old will talk about seizing the day and savoring the moment. These words are now a part of every daily vocabulary.

Last night, I was at one of Ryan's basketball games and was sitting with a group of moms. One mom that I hadn't met before was talking about a camp that her son went to last week and how wonderful it was. She said it was a bit out of his comfort zone and after the first day, he came home not wanting to go back. She said he was going, that he was with his friends, and that he had the choice to make it a good experience or sulk about it and make himself miserable. It was his choice. She said her son ended up having an amazing week. We each have a choice every. single. day. How are we going to take on the day? Are we going to seize it? Are we going to savor it? 

The thing is, I don't have Molly's SEIZE THE DAY attitude. Molly usually wakes up happy, ready to go to school or dance or Shannon's soccer game or her brothers' basketball games. Even if it is something that she particularly doesn't want to do, she makes the most of it. It seems to come naturally to her, it is who she is.

I, on the other hand, am cranky and crabby in the morning. I certainly do not wake up with a Seize the Day attitude. My worst mommy moments are probably in the morning trying to get the other non-morning people out the door and to school on time. There is no seizing the day, it's more like survive the day. 

And that's life. You just can't seize the day, every day, but for some, like Molly, that positive outlook, that seize the day, that dance even when it's raining outside attitude (One of her favorite movies is Singing in the Rain.) it comes easier to her than others. It's as if she doesn't make the choice to be happy, she just is. But I'm more like the little boy that didn't like his camp on the first day. I need to make the choice each day, it doesn't come so easily. I have to think about it and make the choice.

One day last week, we were sitting at the dinner table and the kids were discussing personalities and they were saying that Ryan is a "mini-me" of Chris, which I agree with, they do have similar personalities as well as Ryan looking like Chris when he was a kid. They also said that Molly was my mini-me, that we like the same things; school, books, museums, musicals. This may be true, we do enjoy similar things, but it is me who wants to have her attitude of arms outstretched to take on the day no matter what. She is my example.

And now, I have a reminder of that in my front garden because when I told my mom how much I loved her new statue and how it reminded me of Molly, guess what came in the mail a few days later?

Here is my new statue, arms outstretched, birds sitting on her arms, it makes me want to start singing Zippity Doo Dah…Mr. Bluebird's on my shoulder.

And here is Molly and Grandma, standing like statues, trying to get the birds to come to them.

And one finally came.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Books on Location

This past weekend I was up in New York with my girls. Molly and I packed a bag of books because we had a plan to visit a bunch of places that are connected to books we have read together. I posted pictures over the weekend to Instagram and Facebook and someone asked if we walk around with a library and just whip out a book and take a picture? 

Not exactly.

Books on Location all started last summer when Molly and I were reading From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It was all Molly's idea. The story is about a sister and brother that run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a few weeks. Molly wanted to go visit the museum and see the things that were mentioned in the book. I did a little research, and over the years, many people have done the same thing to the point that the museum actually made a guide of the museum for kids based off of the book. We went in September of 2013 and had a great day exploring all the things that Molly and I had read about.

Then December came, and we always go to NY for Christmas. Every year, we pick a day to go into the city, we see the tree, pick a few fun things to do, and just enjoy the day together. Molly and I happen to be reading The Cricket in Times Square and I said to her we should bring the book and take a picture with it in Times Square. 

And there you have it. It was the beginning of Books on Location. We don't pick which books we will read based off of whether we can take a picture somewhere, but we have had fun with it this past year.

After reading Escape From Mr. Lemoncelllo's Library, Molly got her own library card. 

During spring break, we drove down to Florida. We had finished reading Because of Winn-Dixie and used google map to find one somewhere in Alabama to get our picture.

In May, Molly and I were in NY because her dance troupe performed on the Intrepid for Fleet Week. We packed a couple of books to take our pictures, The Wizard of Oz in front of Wicked which we had seen a few years ago and Matilda, one of our favorite books and musicals.

But when we finished reading The Wizard of Oz, we also made a trip into DC for the day to see the ruby slippers at the Smithsonian…even though we both now know that the shoes were not ruby in the book.

Notice the shirt she is standing next to in the gift shop…and then notice the shirt she is wearing in the next picture…I'm a softy.

After we walked around the museum for about an hour, we ventured out to the mall. I knew there was a carousel there, and yes we both know that Mary Poppins takes place in London and is actually one of the places that Molly would LOVE to go visit someday, but we settled for a picture by the carousel. There is a carousel scene in a park in the book.

After the carousel ride, we walked down to the White House. Molly and I read When Audrey Met Alice. Audrey's mother is the president and she lives in the White House. She is snooping around one night and finds Alice Roosevelt's diary hidden in the floor boards in a closet. Alice is the oldest of Teddy Roosevelt's kids. The books goes back and forth between present day with Audrey to the past with Alice. Molly and I just fell in love with Alice's spirit. She really was quite the character.

Well, after reading When Audrey Met Alice, we had to make a trip to Teddy Roosevelt's house that just happens to be about half an hour away from my mom's house. This was Alice's house before her father became president. We couldn't go into the house because of renovations, but it is in such a pretty spot and we walked around the grounds, went into the museum, and then walked the nature trail to the bay. 

Then on Sunday, we went into the city. We had it all planned out and our books were in a backpack. 

First stop, the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.

We really had the perfect day, sun was shining, it wasn't too hot or too cold, and Molly was just so excited to spend the morning in the park.

Next stop, the Hans Christian Andersen statue. Molly and I have read a few of his stories. It all started because of the movie Frozen, which is loosely, and I mean loosely, based on his story The Snow Queen. Then we read a few more of his stories and then of course I had to buy the movie, Hans Christian Andersen, with Danny Kaye. Molly has watched it a number of times.

Molly and I haven't read Nightingale's Nest yet. It's a new book and it's on our summer reading list. It is based off of Han Christian Andersen's The Nightingale.

Our last stop in Central Park was to find a place where we thought there should be a statue for James and the Giant Peach.

And as for the enormous peach stone - it was set up permanently in a place of honor in Central Park and became a famous monument. It was also a famous house. And inside the famous house there lives a famous person- 
James Henry Trotter
Every day of the week, hundreds and hundreds of children from far and near came pouring into the City to see the marvelous peach stone in the Park. 

There really should be a peach stone in Central Park. Molly and I are going to have to write a letter to someone about this.

After all our Central Park visits, we took a cab to Times Square. The book we are reading right now, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When we were in the city a couple of weeks ago for her dance performance, we saw the Wonka section in Toys r Us and knew we would be back with the book.

Our last stop on Saturday was to see Matilda, again. A show based on a book about a girl that loves to read books. Molly knows every lyric to every song, and can sing them with the British accent. Not only is it a great show, it has a great message.

It's about when you think life's not fair, you don't have to sit around and just take it. Do something about it! You are in control of your own story, you get to decide what your story is going to be about. Isn't that great message for little girls, really for us all?

Matilda's mom

Matilda's brother

Matilda's Dad

It reminds me of this saying…

Where will our reading take us next. Well, I'm not sure. We read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume and it takes place in Tarrytown, NY, right near Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving's house is there, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We read Double Fudge by Judy Blume and Fudge and his family visit the National Zoo in Washington DC.

Or this is the pond from Stuart Little. We might just have to read that before our next New York City trip.

So many books to read, so many places to visit.