Monthly Archives: January 2014

Are You Ready for Some Football?!?! Teacher Tips for Super Bowl Monday!

NFL 2014 Playoff Bracket

NFL 2014 Playoff Bracket

Many of our students will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday and all the hype that comes with it: pre-game interviews, post-game interviews and all the stuff in between including carefully crafted commercials, and, yes, there is a football game in there somewhere.

Here are a few fun, engaging, standards-based activities that will incorporate the television most of your students watched over the weekend. For those students who somehow missed the event, these activities still can be utilized and they won’t feel left out of the discussion.

One of my favorite all-time teaching resources in the New York Times “The Learning Network.”  It is chock-full of standards-based teaching ideas on a myriad of topics, including the Super Bowl:  Some of the ideas are listed below.


MATH:  Take a look at the activities posted at which embrace typical math lessons but focus on features that are part of the Super Bowl.  I like this set of problems for working with and analyzing  data sets of typical Super Bowl scores.  Pick a few problems to focus on in class to start the day – maybe use a problem or two as a math warmup:  Be a Super Bowl Data Whiz Kid

For a quick review of those pesky Roman Numerals which will flash across the screen as part of the Super Bowl logo, here are some ideas:  Pesky Roman Numerals

WRITING:  For writing,  I love the idea of looking at sports writing which “flexes those descriptive writing muscles!”  Bring in copies of a couple of articles from the internet or your favorite sports section to analyze.  Talk about how sports writers reinvent a simple sentence (The __________won the game against the __________) every day.  Then, using the articles, and with dictionaries and thesauruses handy, have your students create a “mad lib” with the following activity (they can work in pairs or better yet, small groups):  Play-by-Play Mad Lib

Reconvene once the mad libs are solved and discuss:  How did changing the words and phrases in the original article change its meaning and tone? What did this activity reveal about the choices that the sportswriters made? Which of the original descriptive words and phrases were particularly striking to you, and why?  Have students choose an event and then complete the following, to work on descriptive writing:  Vivid Writing Exercise

Check out the entire descriptive writing lesson plan here:  Getting in the Game

SOCIAL STUDIES:  So much to choose from…rumor has it that Cheerios, whose commercial about diversity caused such a stir a few months back, will air another ad about diversity (using the same family it did in the first commercial).  It might be interesting to compare the two advertisements and have the class discuss the responses to the first ad.  You should be able to pull these two commercials off of youtube and show them in class.  Topics to consider:  How has the definition of family changed in the last 50 years?  Why do some people view this ad as controversial?  What is the advertiser trying to accomplish with this particular ad?

SCIENCE:  The weather.  It has been a big story for most of us this year and its potential impact on this year’s Superbowl is a news item.  Here is an article from the NY Times on the subject:  “Super Bowl Putting Big Pressure on the Weatherman.”  Some ideas for discussion and research:  How is ever-increasing computing sophistication leading to more accurate forecasts? Why does it matter so much for the Super Bowl? In what other industries is it also important to precisely predict the weather? Have students learn about the field of meteorology and how it is changing, or invite them to think about other cold-weather science questions, like how playing in the bitter cold affects athletes. (And if those aren’t enough resources, here are many more ideas for teaching about the science of cold weather.)

Ok.  A few ideas to get you started!  Please share yours!

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Saying Goodbye

rumi wound

My dog died. One day running in and out of the house, albeit somewhat stiffly with his arthritic legs. The next day our house is empty, his collar still laying on the kitchen table where I left it when we came home from the vet.

It’s been a week and I still listen for the jangle of the collar, I still anticipate his body coming alongside me, I still automatically reach for the gate when I leave for the day. I wait for the call from the vet, telling me that he’s ready to be picked up. I rub memories over the open, raw space in my mind, and it still stings each time.

It is the most basic thing. We are born, we live, and we die. And yet I am still a five-year-old, I’m still asking, “Where did he go?” It still feels unfair.

When grief comes, it is a train, running between my ears. When death comes, there is a free fall, with the anticipated crash, and the slow, slow, slow gluing of pieces, never quite the same, even when made whole.

This is not the first time death has knocked. That does not make it easier.

The day after he died, I went to school. My eyes were stinging: swollen and on fire. But with new sight. They saw the kindred. They saw the other, grieving, calling out to them with a compassion new and alive.

The light entered the wound. Because we all share the wounds. We all hold pain, some with neon signs, most buried deep. But the light hits those wounded places and asks us to be healed. And the healing comes in community.

At lunch I told Grace, “What you’re going through must be so difficult.” And what I meant was, “I share your pain, I allow you to feel it with me. I have pain, too.”

Maybe, when we step back away from the reading, the math, the tests, and the lesson plans, maybe that’s the best we can do.

It’s what my dog did, greeting me each day with the unbridled joy of getting to be together once more. Licking my hand on days that were hard, knowing without words how to be the best friend, how to give the best gifts. It was all he had to give, and it was enough.


Bringing the Joy Factor: New Energizers in Your Classroom (Or At Home)

It’s January, the polar vortex has taken over our lives, testing is coming to a head, and in spite of our extra days off of school, we’re exhausted and our students are, too. It’s time for a Tuesday Teaching Tip.

One of my favorite things to do in my classroom is an energizer. Energizers are brief breaks between lessons that have structured play. Once the expectations are set for how to do energizers (or how not to), it’s easy to introduce new energizers on a weekly basis until you have created a base to choose from.

My students have their favorites, but even a devoted energizer enthusiast can run short on ideas. Nothing is worse than standing up to energize your students and having them all groan when you call out what you’re going to do.

Here is a list of brand new energizers sure to excite your students.

1. Zombie Tag


In Zombie Tag, the students start out by walking slowly around the classroom. The teacher calls out one student who has become a zombie. They must start walking with hands out, slowly. Anyone they bump into then also becomes a zombie. If zombies are slow to be made, then the teacher can call out more students who turn into zombies. Anyone who walks too quickly becomes a zombie. The game is over when the whole class is zombified.

2. Psychic Faces


In Psychic Faces, students pair up and stand back to back with one another. Students each put their hands on their partner’s head to “mind read” what action they will choose to act out. On the count of three, both partners turn around and display an action. The goal is to choose the same action.

The actions can vary. This video shows “Bear” (two hands up in claws, make a roar noise), “Samson” (hands in muscle position with a “huh” noise), and “Delilah” (hands to the side like a skirt). However, I might change those to be three different animals, or some other familiar actions.

3. Dinosaur Stomp


This is my students’ favorite energizer. Although you can probably sing this one, it really helps to have a projector and speakers and have the students follow along with the youtube video.

The basic song is:
Pick up your feet and stomp it, stomp it (3xs) Now let’s do it again
Open up your claws and chomp it, chomp it (3xs) Straight to the end

I cannot recommend this more highly. The classes that walk by our door when we do this energizer inevitably stop and stare, most likely wishing they, too, could act like dinosaurs.

4. Popcorn’s In the Popper


This is another favorite. We usually play this during our morning meeting, but it can be modified to an energizer by having students make a circle around the room. Three students crouch down in the middle of the circle.

The teacher leads out with this call and response song:

First you poor in the oil (pour in the oil)
Sprinkle in the popcorn (sprinkle in the popcorn)
Cover up the pan (cover up the pan)
Turn up the heat (turn up the heat)

(Together, while rubbing hands together):
Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle,
Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle,
Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, POP!

(Students in the middle who were crouching stand up and start jumping around the circle while everyone else sings):
The popcorn’s in the popper, let it pop pop pop
The popcorn’s in the popper, let it pop pop pop (repeat)
Pop, pop, pop, pop,
Now it’s time to STOP (everyone freezes)

You would be surprised how much fun this is, and how much older kids enjoy playing it, too.

One last thing: Clicking on the links will bring you to the youtube page of each of these videos, but you can obviously watch the embedded video instead. However, each video is from a different organization, and they each have a lot more videos with other ideas to check out. If you do find another good energizer, leave us a comment and let us know!


Book Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

shadow and bone
There are a lot, and I do mean A LOT of young adult fiction trilogies. It can be hard to pick up a book, invest in the characters, and find out at the end that it is but one of a much larger commitment of books, which may or may not pay off satisfactorily in the end.

The Grisha Trilogy is a book series worth reading. A fantasy, this book presents a world that has a very Russian landscape, which the author intentionally chose to contrast the typical European setting of many fantasies. The main character, Alina Starkov, has a rare talent that she has kept hidden, but which comes to light during battle, plunging her into a world of magic, mystery, and the Darkling: a dangerous and compelling magician who wants to use Alina as his own.

What I find so unique about this book is that the main problem is not a romance. From Twilight to Hunger Games, the underlying theme for the female protagonist is inevitably choosing between two men. In Shadow and Bone, Alina must choose between accepting her power, or hiding it. Will she embrace the fullness of her gift, knowing that it comes with power and all the temptations power brings, or will she hide her gift to try to get back the familiar life she left?

The third book of this series will come out in June, and it is the book I most look forward to reading this year. This book stands out as a refreshing change to the many dystopian and fantasy YA trilogies that have been released in the past five years. I think this book would be perfect for a book club to discuss, since Bardugo does great work in unpacking the battle with self, and the long journey toward self discovery, themes that would resonate with teens.


(Intended audience: 7th grade and up)

Just Breathe: Meaningful “Value” Added & Higher Standardized Test Scores in just 8 minutes/day!

The first day of yoga in a chair...

The first day of yoga in a chair…

Wouldn’t it be great if that were truly the case? If, in only 8 minutes per day, a teacher could transform students into amazing test-taking machines, the rest of the day could be spent learning valuable curriculum. Unfortunately, there is no one “strategy” or “tip” that will result in such a magical transformation. And the stress of test prep for both teachers and students increases every day of the school year until the tests are completed and sent off to be scored. Let’s not mention the stress of waiting for the scores to be reported.

I always tried to ignore the nudging and cajoling from my administrators to focus on standardized test prep for my students as the test loomed closer, especially after returning from winter break. Sure, test prep helps, sort of. I guess. But the more we focused on how to “Do your best! It’s THE test!”, the less my students focused on learning. Instead, many of them, including my stellar performers, began to stress out. A LOT. This did nothing to improve test scores, my value-added score or the quality of life in our learning community.

My dear friend Nancy, an amazing yoga teacher who was helping me de-stress from my own test anxiety (!), suggested that I consider bringing some yoga & meditation into my 7th grade classroom and incorporating it  as part of our day. I was hesitant at first because there was no room in my classroom to spread out on the floor.

Well, I learned that you can do yoga in a chair!  And Nancy’s idea  turned out to be a GREAT idea.  The yoga engaged students, helped them focus, gave them a way to release tension in their bodies after sitting all day, and helped them use simple breathing techniques to calm and ease anxiety.  Nancy used a tibetan singing bowl as a cue for the students to attend to her voice and guided meditation.  And, most importantly:


And we worked to use it in the classroom the rest of the year – even after the test.  As a whole, my students performed well on the math, science and language arts standardized tests we administered every March.  Did yoga and meditation help?  I can’t prove it – but I know it helped my kids with behavior issues  and it was a tool our classroom could use at times when inattentiveness and adolescent distractions disrupted instruction.  Doing yoga in a chair means kids can sit in their chairs.  No need to take time to move and regroup.  Like Nike says: JUST DO IT.

Current and ongoing research supports the use of mindfulness techniques in the classroom, including meditation and yoga,  to help ease tension and depression and to help students attend to instruction.  A compilation of these studies can be found at the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good website.  And take a look at this interesting article (with a video) on the positive impact of mindfulness techniques in low-income schools at the Mind/Shift blog.

Here are the poses and the breathing techniques we learned from Nancy:

chair yoga poseschair yoga breathing

I incorporated a singing bowl in my instruction for the next several years as a way to quiet students rather than using my voice (which I had been losing somewhere in early February prior to that time).  They are beautiful and the kids view it as sacred.  One of the best investments I ever made, a singing bowl can be purchased at (some for as little as $24).  

Use the singing bowl as a sign for kids to sit quietly at their desks or come to the carpet to participate in a group activity – such as yoga or meditation – or even guided reading.  Even my energetic, often unruly 8th grade boys knew to quiet and even close their eyes when they heard the sound of the bowl.

I can attest that my students benefited overall from learning how to use yoga, meditation,  and breathing techniques to “de-stress” and refocus in the classroom, especially during the period leading up to high-stakes testing.  A holistic approach to preparing our students – mind, body & spirit – to take on difficult learning and task challenges, not just standardized tests,  truly adds value to the classroom and to the experience of teaching and learning.  Breathe.

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Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart

As teachers, we often seek stories to help us explain or show concepts (i.e. compassion, kindness, patience) that are hard to define without concrete examples.  As readers, we sometimes reach for stories to help us understand or explore our spiritual side.  As mothers, we might search for stories to help us explain to our children what is meant by God’s unconditional love.  Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion is an astounding collection of stories that can accomplish all of these tasks.

Tattoos on the Heart  demonstrates the power and possibilities of boundless compassion and kindness through the sometimes startling and always unique stories of the former gang members (a.k.a. “Homies”) Fr. Boyle  (a.k.a. “G-Dog”) has worked with at Homeboy Industries in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for the past 24 years.

I love the title of this  book.  But after reading it, I was compelled to write on its cover (my husband hates when I do that, but I am saying I was compelled) an additional phrase:  “Kindness is the only strength there is.” Fr. Boyle’s own story illustrates the fundamental kindness that transforms not just those who receive it, but those who give it.

G-Dog knows how to tell a story with grace and humor (I would love to go to a mass where he gives the homily).  His detailed and riveting accounts  are tales of deep suffering, hope, grace and redemption.  So many of the stories show the intense power of unconditional love and acceptance as well as the importance of fighting despair.

Through these stories and Fr. Boyle’s thoughtful reflections, we learn about compassion, mercy, baptism, gladness, kinship and God’s presence in our lives. We discover more about meaningful success: standing in solidarity with those in need and persisting faithfully, despite numerous failures, and not abandoning our post, despite the lack of “evidence-based outcomes” (ring a bell, my teaching colleagues?).

I loved this book.  Many of these stories are now “tattooed” on my heart and remind me, as did so many of my former students,  that every life matters.   Meeting the world with a loving heart will truly determine what we find there ( not my words but Fr. Boyle’s).  G-Dog has a way with words  and an ability to articulate deep truths, such as the concept that true compassion for the poor: “stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

Whole chapters or even just a few of the stories in Tattoos on the Heart could be used in a late middle school (8th grade) or high school classroom as authentic, mentor text for writing narratives.  Or to explore the meaning and power of empathy and compassion (focus of chapter 3 of the book) with visual arts activities (yes, we all have tattoos on the heart and so many students pre-write more effectively if they’ve created  a visual representation first).

(Intended audience:  Ages 14 & up)

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For Starters

An introduction to my mom life.

It’s my son’s first year working as an actor in New York City. Even though he has lived in NYC since starting college in 2009, there still are days I am certain that he has somehow fallen in harm’s way and perhaps THIS TIME, he is lying unconscious and in mortal peril in a hospital or the subway or possibly the morgue (which would obviously mean way more than unconscious), but no one knows that they are supposed to call and inform his mother.  It does help, at least temporarily, when my son returns my phone calls or responds to text messages with “I’m okay, mom!” But like Rachel, I am usually very worried that something is terribly wrong unless I’ve talked to him in the last hour. Did I mention that he’s 22 and not an infant?

This parenting gig is the most overwhelming experience of my life to date and I wouldn’t change any of it for anything. It is full of wonder and love and joy so intense, I think my heart might burst. BUT (and there always is a BUT ), to balance the joy and awe, there is also this equally intense “worry and fret” thing that comes along with it. In these past 22+ years, my mind has been flooded with concerns both mundane and huge that center around the well-being and happiness of my now adult son…and it doesn’t seem to end no matter how many birthday candles we blow out each year. And like Rachel, there has been a lot of walking forward, putting one foot in front of the other, and trying to do the next right thing as a mom.

And in my experience, there is a lot of talking to/debating with yourself involved in being a mom (see Rachel’s thoughts 1-4). That’s why I believe it is important to talk to other moms and ask questions and then just GO WITH YOUR GUT.

I was a lawyer with an active law practice when my son was born and went back to work when he was 3 months old. I needed to pay the mortgage (my son’s dad was a young resident at University of Chicago hospitals), put food on the table and make the car payment. I compartmentalized and kept putting one foot in front of the other, but I worked to make it home as early as possible and to work from home whenever I could. Much of the time, I will admit, I was miserable – torn between being with my beautiful boy and doing what needed to be done at work. I worked out what was, in retrospect, an incredible daycare situation with Nick in a wonderful home daycare setting where he grew and developed skill sets I would never have been able to teach him (hitting baseballs, shooting free throws, fielding ground balls).

But I never stopped missing him. There was always a little bit of grief in my heart everyday. My head saw the benefits of working mom but my heart never quite believed it.

But day care moves into before/after-school care in the blink of an eye. We got lucky there as well. Miss Debbie, our angel. I learned as a parent there are many angels out there ready to help us parent. That village thing. And then after-school sports practices and games, theater rehearsals, band concerts take the place of the caretakers…and then they go to college. Sometimes 800 miles away from home. And still, there was and is a little bit of grief in my heart everyday. Because no matter how old, our children are still our children. And as parents we start letting go from day 1, whether we work outside the home or stay at home.

And the letting go is never ever easy for any mom. Because being a mom is hard work.

And yes, we learn there are more questions and few answers. Here’s to mulling over the possibilities together.

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The Power of a Post It

We’re pretty obsessed with the Post-It note. The colorful ones, the ones made on recycled paper, the sheet sized ones, the tiny ones, and even the ones shaped like mittens. Post-it notes may be the solution to world peace. If you, like us, get panicky when you don’t have a stack near by, then you may already be using all of our tips. But scroll on through to see some ways we integrate post it notes into our classroom. (And make it to the end for directions on how to enter our first FREE GIVEAWAY!)

The Post-It for Charting: (The big Post-it)
ImageTo make thinking visible we use charts. Nothing new here. However, if your students are like mine, every single piece of my mini-lesson has to be scripted without pause. Therefore, it can be tricky to make my students wait for me to chart out my thinking. Also, by the time I’m charting I often have forgotten the exact wording I wanted. By this time Shila is pinching Lily and Evelin is braiding Emma’s hair.

I find it helpful to write my thinking on a large post it note, and put it on the page where I will stop. Then, I can pull that Post-It off and put it up while I am saying my thinking–no pause, and the added advantage of helping my visual learners in real time.

During the students’ time to turn and talk to each other, I circulate, and find one example to chart on post it notes while I listen. In the debrief, I put the Post-It note with their thinking up, crediting the thinker, while explaining what they said. This picks up the pace of the lesson dramatically, and makes sure that what the student share out is pertinent and helping to move the lesson forward. (We hate to say that students sharing out is dead space, but in a ten minute mini-lesson, I find that calling on hands willy-nilly can lead to a long side trail of hearing about Jamar’s trip to Red Lobster the night before. This is obviously something I need to explicitly teach my students not to do, but the mini-lesson is not the place I choose to do that teaching.)

The students love to see their ideas on the board, and sometimes I allow them to sign their Post-It at the bottom before returning to their seat for independent reading time.

(A special shout out to the Chicago Literacy Group for introducing me to this use of post it notes. Check them out here)

The Post It for Arranging Seats: (The mini Post-It)

This trick was taught to me by my teaching coach my first year of teaching. Using small post-it notes, write a student’s name on each one. Then, code each note with any special considerations. For me, I do a 1, 2, 3 ranking based on their behavioral concerns or their ability to work with others in groups. I might also add a note for glasses, proximity to teacher, etc, to remind me to give preferential seating.

After that, I can rearrange the post it notes over and over until I have just the right combination of students.

The Post It for Note Taking: (The standard sized Post-It)
Here’s a picture walk. First, I put Post-It notes on whatever note-taking sheet I have been given to use. (This works for reading, math, or any subject)

(Obviously the Post-It notes are not perfectly aligned to the sheet. This doesn’t bother me, but if it’s annoying to you, I suggest you look at the step by step tutorial for printing on Post-It notes on this blog here.)

After taking the notes, simply transfer each note to that student’s page:

(I made this one blank to protect the anonymity of my students) Voila! Easy.

The Post-It Compliment: (Any Post-It, but shaped Post-Its work well here)

IMG_1606I like to use the shaped Post-It notes to give immediate positive feedback to my students. This can be as simple as “You did your homework” and as detailed as “You remembered not to kick Tony”. (Or maybe that just happens in my class.) Given my background and belief in Responsive Classroom, I do try to make sure all my comments are quantified and specific, and leave out value judgements (ex. You walked through the hallway silently vs. I like how you did a good job walking through the hallway). But you’ll have to make your own decisions about what to write :-).

I know one teacher who writes the post it notes ahead of time, using some common praises, and hands them out when she sees it happening in action.


In honor of our first Tuesday Tip, we are giving away a Post It Prize Pack!

We believe in Post-It notes, and we want you to have your own supply! Since Post-Its are expensive, it can be tempting to want to buy the knock off brands like stickies or stick ums. We recommend against this, as the notes tend to fall off of charts, out of notebooks, and end up all over the floor.

In order to start you off, we want you to win this prize pack for your home, classroom, or office! There are several ways to enter to win: (You can enter each way to get THREE entries)

1.) Comment below with your favorite use for Post-It Notes
2.) Like our page on facebook:
3.) Share this page on your facebook page and tag us in it!

(Unfortunately we are only able to ship to a United States address.)

Thanks for reading, and good luck! (Drawing will take place on January 21st, just in time for next week’s tip!)


Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio


As teachers we are always looking for a powerful read aloud, one meaty enough that we can teach it for a month, a semester, year after year. This is one of those books.

The basic summary is that a boy named August, who has significant facial deformation, is entering school for the first time to attend 5th grade. Told from several perspectives, you are able to see the bravery of August entering this new world, juxtaposed with his sister’s desire to have a fresh start in High School, and his friends’ desire to be friends with August without being social outcasts.

August himself is so loveable that you root for him from the beginning, and the bumpy, challenging, painful first year made me cry and laugh, ever honest about what it is like to not fit in with all the other kids.

If you’re thinking about teaching this book, it also has some other interesting topics for discussion, such as death, bullying, entitlement, and theater.

This book should be read by all of us. Everyone who has every wondered what to say when they see someone with special needs, everyone who has every had special needs or been a friend to someone with special needs, and everyone who remembers what it was like to want so desperately to make friends in grade school. This book has a powerful message for us all.

(Intended audience: 4th grade and up)

Image Review by Rachel

For Starters

An introduction to my life.

It’s my son’s first day in daycare and I am convinced that he has died and the daycare provider just hasn’t gotten around to calling me to tell me yet. She texted me to tell me that he had been sleeping for the last hour and he is adorable, and all I could think was, “He’s been asleep for an hour? Well that’s impossible. Obviously something is very very wrong.”

I will preface this by saying that there is no solution to this, other than continuing to walk forward. Put one foot in front of the other, let the days pass, and love the snot out of him when I’m with him.

I’ve gone around and around in my head. When I hit a problem, I create every possible solution until one actually works. I have yet to find the solution to this one.

Thought 1: Quit work, stay at home. But then we will be very tight on cash. And also, I will be crazy. Not eccentric crazy. Open the door on the freeway crazy. Post partum has been mean to me like that.

Thought 2: Win lottery, stay at home: See above, minus being tight on cash. (Maybe don’t throw out this idea completely.)

Thought 3: Work, child in daycare. Current solution, but will probably lead to my child not fully attaching to me and resenting me for remainder of life.

Thought 4: Work, child with nanny. But then we will be very tight on cash, to the point of making work seem not worth the time.  Leading me back to thought 1. And thought 3.

You get the point.

I get the reasons why it’s ok to be a working mom. I read Lean In. It seems really wonderful to read about the studies and know that, at least statistically, I’m not screwing over my son (at least not more than anyone else).

But I think this is hard. I think it’s hard for moms who work and for moms who stay at home.

I was a crusader, adamant about a woman’s RIGHT to go to work, be a wife, and be a mom.

But the reality looks a little more like wearing the most ridiculous nipple suctions while sitting in a locked bathroom, having milk pumped out of me and worrying if there will be enough, or if I will have to supplement with formula. (Let’s add that to my list of insecurities.)

Welcome to being a working mom. Here’s to not having answers.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n Rachel