Contributing to the Team

So, it’s been a few days since the UVA Men’s Basketball team won the national championship. And I’ve been thinking about what is so appealing, so intriguing, and frankly, so addictive about rooting for and following this team.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how they’re bad for college basketball- their pace and style of play won’t engage the casual fan; defense is boring; it’s like watching paint dry; they just waste the shot clock and wear you down; etc.

Well this morning I played in my normal 6am Tuesday/Thursday game, and it hit me. I’m not the star of my pick-up group. With mostly thirty-somethings, a handful of twenty-somethings, and a third of us in our forties and even fifties, I’m decent; I can hold my own in most games. But I know I’m usually one of the last ones picked on a team. Despite that, I can set a pick, I can box out my man, I can make a pass, I can (mostly) keep myself between the guy I’m guarding and the hoop. And that’s what I realized- that doing those small things, those things that I can do, that’s what I can contribute. That’s what I have to offer, and it takes all five guys on the team to score and maybe even win a silly early morning pick-up game.  I can let others score, because there are plenty of others who are tons better than me at that. I can let others block shots or shut down the other team’s top scorer. I can let others run out on fast breaks and finish at the rim. Doing my part and letting others do theirs are what’s best for my team. We aren’t all blessed with phenomenal shooting skills, or jumping abilities, or cat-like reflexes. Just a handful are, but we all have something to offer.

Whether in our jobs, in our families, in our communities, or in our places of worship, we all want to contribute to a team effort. We want to be connected to something successful. We want to offer what we can for the good of all. We want to add our little piece, contribute what we can, and work hard at something together with others.

This UVA basketball team epitomized all that. The name on the front of their jerseys (Virginia) was a hundred times more important than the name on the back (their last names). They did the little things. They knew their roles. They knew their limitations. They knew their capabilities. They knew the sum was greater than the parts. They knew that individually they could go fast, but together they could go far. And boy, did they go far this year.

Go Hoos!


Things I’m learning this month

Encouragement goes a long way– In the 30 days of blogging and about 100 comments on my posts, you all only offered encouraging thoughts or connections. I never heard a single bit of criticism, even when I knew that it wasn’t the best quality writing. Thank you, fellow bloggers/writers/educators!

Take some risks– I’ve been teaching for 23 years now, and I always say that I most enjoy teaching math. I never saw myself as a writer, so teaching writing was just part of the job. This Challenge was a risk. Lisa Keeler suggested it to all of our faculty. I can imagine her jaw on the floor when she read my email that I was interested. We planned a time to chat about it, and she was nothing but encouraging throughout the whole process. If you are taking a risk, it is helpful to have someone as kind and supportive as Lisa is.

Writing opens my eyes and ears– I’ve been looking and observing more closely. Frankly it makes life much more interesting.

I owe my student writers much more patience, acknowledgement, and time- I need to be more aware of possible writer’s block or any outside issue keeping kids from writing. When they do write, I have been trying to honor that they got their words on paper and that’s a great first step. I’ve been really thinking about how much time I put into each entry and how much time I should be giving to students to write.

I can write– I’m still not confident that anything I write is truly any good, but I do believe here and there, I’ve conveyed my message clearly.

Thanks so much to the Two Writing Teachers group and the SOLC community!

Music Memories

It’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter, bitter than sweet.

Shout, shout, let it all out. These are the things I can do without.

Wild boys! Wild boys! The wild boys are calling, on their way back from the fire.

The Reflex, flex, flex, flex,flex

These songs echoed in our bathroom as I got ready this morning. They transported me back to several different times in my life.

-A crisp fall day in Colorado riding around Washington Park in my friend’s open-air Jeep

-Middle school days glued to MTV waiting for the newest Michael Jackson creation or racy Duran Duran video

-Parachute pants and spiked hair and flowing white shirts

-Cassette tapes and some odd, deep blue, corduroy-ish fabric in my brother’s Volvo 240DL

I wonder what my kids will remember in the future when they hear songs from their childhood/teenage years.

How his words landed on me

“So, how late do your conferences go tomorrow?” the head coach wondered.

“I go from 8-5 tomorrow, all day. Sorry I’m missing the match,” I replied.

A nearby player overheard our conversation and offered, “Ahh, Coach R, you’re not going to be there tomorrow?”

“Yup, I’ve got parent-teacher conferences tomorrow.”

“Oh, yeah, my little brother doesn’t have school tomorrow. He said something about conferences,” he responded.

It was a really quick exchange at the end of practice.

I am the assistant coach on the varsity tennis team. We were having an away match the following day that I couldn’t make, because of parent-teacher conferences.

The “Oh, yeah” response warmed me on the warm Spring day. I had been feeling guilty that I could not make the trip with the boys. Those few words from our player validated my excuse. Our head coach doesn’t work at our school, so he doesn’t necessarily know about my teaching obligations. When I had first told him that I couldn’t make it, he was supportive and didn’t question me. So, it was probably just my catholic guilt getting the best of me. Still I appreciated the player’s response because it proved I had a legitimate excuse.

That’s how my player’s seemingly innocuous words landed on me.

What would you do with your fifteen minutes?

A library substitute, who happened to also be a parent in my room, poked her head in our classroom door and looked confused. She scanned the room, searching for something. As she caught my eye, I saw her eyes widen slightly, surprised to see me. She remarked that she had thought that I wasn’t in the room and she had a book for a student of mine. I had been camouflaged among the students on our classroom couch. We were chatting about “Impossible Trivia” on the radio, about our brackets, about our field trip the next day, about the late UVA game, etc.

On these rotation days we have fifteen extra minutes of homeroom time, because PE starts fifteen minutes later. We can have an extended Morning Meeting if we want or a bit more time for a Morning Meeting Activity. I can give them a few more minutes to settle into school, chat with their friends, or resume something from the day before. It’s definitely a more relaxed feel. It’s only fifteen minutes, but the other days, we’re always seeing how much of Morning Meeting we can squeeze in before we have to head off to somewhere or other. It’s why I was just sitting there and hanging with my students.

Time is a frequent theme in many of my reflections and some of my blog posts. When I’m not rushed, I take the time to listen a bit better. When there’s time, my body relaxes more and my mind isn’t thinking about the next moment. With extra time, I’m not as irritable if something isn’t exactly as I planned or hoped. When I have more time, I see and hear more.

Music to my ears

“Can I work on this at home?”

“Can we do this at recess?”

“Are we going to have time to finish the stories we started yesterday?”

“After lunch can we ask the other Reading teachers if we can do Writing first instead?”

“Can we sit at a special table together at lunch and write?”

“That was the shortest lunch ever!” “You mean because you were busy writing during it?” “Yeah!”

“Writing’s my favorite subject now!”

Music to a writing teacher’s ears.

I really didn’t do much. I promise. We are starting our adapted fairy tale unit. The past two days I have been reading and reading and reading and letting them read fairy tales- original and adapted ones.  And all I did (as a pre-assessment) was ask them to write me a fairy tale, to tell me what they knew about the genre of fairy tales.

Gosh, they are running with these stories. Now, I haven’t even read the work they’ve so eagerly dove into, but I almost don’t want to. I think they’re writing for the pure joy of writing. So, I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging. I have yet to “teach” a craft move or any mini-lesson on fairy tales. I am just celebrating the joy to hear these words and to see them so excited.

We started the school year with some information writing. Then we did free verse poetry. We recently finished having them write persuasive speeches. I guess they were dying to write narrative stories. Shame on me for not realizing that sooner, but hooray for both students and teacher that they’re so enthralled with writing at the moment.


I’m tired

Didn’t sleep well

Up at midnight, again at 3, one more time at 4

Should I go back to sleep

Should I get up and do a few things

See who’s already sliced

Make comments

Alarm will go off at 5

Is it worth it to sleep some more

I toss

I turn

Struggle to think peaceful thoughts

At some point I doze back to sleep

Because that 5 o’clock alarm startles me

I’m so tired I can’t even punctuate this

Soccer Lesson

The sun shined bright, and our sweatshirts and jackets warmed us from the brisk air.  It wasn’t too cold though, especially if you were a four or five-year old running around chasing a soccer ball. I had about ten of them on my mini-field. Parents lined the sidelines to help keep the ball in play. They were on two different teams, but the other coach and I were “coaching up” all ten of them regardless of Royal Blue or Navy Blue team.

The players constantly surrounded the ball like they would the ice cream truck on a steamy summer evening. Some of them tripped over their own feet. Some of them tripped each other. Some of them lasted a minute on the field, then ran over to Mom or Dad too shy to play or worried or anxious. Some scored goals. Some stayed clear of the ball confusion, wary of being toppled.

Parents and coaches called out things like, “Nice shot. Good job. Okay, okay, let’s help her up. Go Navy Blue. Good hustle. Just keep playing. Try to pass. Go Royal Blue. Nice block.”

Basically, we all offered lots of encouragement. There was no concern about score- score wasn’t even kept. There was no concern about winning. We were just wanting everyone to be involved, get exercise, and have some fun.

During my best teaching this also happens. There is no pressure to perform, just encouragement, letting them explore/discover, and acknowledging what they are doing. The key to the soccer success was probably low expectations, high hopes for a positive experience, nice weather, time to focus on their positives, and knowing there would be time in their future for other stressful parts to learning soccer. I should remember this when teaching.

Like father, like son

As I’m reading through slices early this morning, I hear singing. I know it’s the four-year old. He is always the second awake in our house. I listen a bit more closely. He’s singing and rapping “You’re Welcome” from Moana. His ten-year old brother has been singing this song for the past week, as he prepares for a quasi-audition for a summer camp production.

Nothing gets by the four-year old. He’s always listening to us. He’s imitating us. In so many ways he is his own little self and, of course, has his own character. But his gestures, his facial expressions, his humor are all modeled after his older brother.

I have an older brother, too. I also have an older sister. My sister and I are numbers two and three of the four Raffinan children. For so many years in high school, in college, and post-college, I modeled myself and tried to emulate my older sister. I wanted the tight group of female and male friends she always had. I tried to balance working and studying hard with having fun and enjoying things like she did. In high school and college, I was a solid, obedient student and could be mischievous like her.

Now, my sister and I live about 2.5 hours apart. We have our own families, our own careers, our own hobbies, our own cities, etc. And I still look up to her, just like our four-year old does to his older brother.

Unexpected Joy

You know those weeks where there’s something different going on each day or there’s something big looming at the end of the week? This week felt like two weeks. By the time Friday rolled around I was simply happy to see it.

Well, the last twenty minutes of my reading class brought me unexpected joy.

I had plans for that last twenty minutes, but they were so into this group spelling game I used to play on high school road trips. Actually, they were struggling as individuals with the game, so I pivoted and had them pair/trio up. This was a game changer. They excitedly whispered suggestions to their partners. They happily cheered each other on. They listened intently to the other groups, so they could strategize. They thought about suffixes, long/short vowels, and plural ending changes, even though they knew the objective of the game was simply to not spell a word.  

I ended up pairing up with a boy, who just half an hour prior gave me smart retort after smart retort and I sent him to take a break in a colleague’s room for a few minutes. In the game, he and I listened intently. We strategized. We even created contingency plans if the players before us said something we didn’t expect. He smiled wide when we avoided being the team who took a point (you didn’t want points in this game).

The teamwork, the learning, the connection I made with this boy, and the way they floated out of my classroom felt uplifting after a long week.