What I Know For Sure

downloadSomething I know for sure…

In 2014 Oprah Winfrey published What I Know for Sure (a fabulous read) stemming from a question she was asked by film critic Gene Siskel. It took her 14 years to come up with answers to that very question. In 2016 Rainn Wilson (otherwise known infamously for his role as Dwight Shrute) published his own musings in reference to this prompt in his autobiography entitled The Bassoon King (also a fabulous read). Winfrey and Wilson focused on, well, what they felt they knew for sure. And of course, they are both brilliant and produced brilliant pieces of wisdom written brilliantly and of course packaged just as brilliantly in their respective pieces.  Our team of educators felt this would be a great place to begin our 2020 blogging. 

What I know for sure. 

When I was a wee lass, my mom would buy me book after book. The rule in the house was that if you are willing to read the book, she was willing to buy it. This would be risky business these days as I can’t get enough of books (I could go broke with my book love)…but back then, I wasn’t really a reader. (Whhhhaaaaat? But, but, but you’re an ENGLISH teacher–I know, I know; it seems like I am breaking the law with even admitting that). Periodically, I would get books from my mom, most notably being Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Knowles A Separate Peace. When I turned 30 I received a complete set of Harvard Classics. For Christmases over the years I have received Jane Austin novels, The Bronte sisters’ works, and of course a favorite of mine, The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1. Along with these sets of books and novels, I heard her quote from various works. She seemed to have at least a page of each novel memorized and could recall it back without much effort. An English major in college herself, and a woman who could read a book every couple of hours, My. Mom. Knew. Books.

Sadly, I didn’t read them when she gave them to me. Instead, they sat on my shelf until I imageswas a teacher. (The hits just keep coming, first I admit I wasn’t a reader, and then I admit that I didn’t read some of the greats…what other English crimes will I reveal…I also can’t spell worth a darn, LOL). During my first year of teaching, I was tasked with reading all of these books my mom had been talking about. So, not only did I have to read them, but I had to impart my wisdom on them, which is no easy task as a first year teacher.

Fast forward to my close to 45 year old self. What I know for sure…my mom didn’t pick those books for me or talk about those books with me because they were just good books that people should have some knowledge in. She picked them because she loved them, and she loved me. I saw and still see pieces of her in those books that she gave me specifically. I see her in Sydney Carton; I see her in Atticus and Scout Finch. I hear her words of warning in 1984, Brave New World (which she hated), The Lord of the Flies. And I see her and hear her in Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Walden

images-1What I, Kristina Zakrzewski, know for sure is this…when a moment arises that we think of someone with a book, a quote, a movie, a show, a meme (oy, yes, I am a lover of memes), a clip, a song, we should disperse this to the person or persons who come to mind. (What my mama did for yours truly). When I hear a song that reminds me of my husband and children, I send it to them. When I see a funny meme that reminds my of my very valued, treasured and extremely goofball friends, I send it to them. When I am reading a book, I am constantly thinking, who can I pass this on to. Who would love this, who needs this, who do I see in this? These are pieces of ourselves that we can share with others. And these are pieces of ourselves that we can see in others. It’s these pieces that show that we value them, we see value in them, and we are there for them. And that value can make change in the world, can inspire others in the world, can be what gets that person through the day, the week.  It can exclaim, “Hey, you, you there, you are not alone. I see you. And I am here for you.” This, this is the gift I was given through the years with my mom. It was through her quotes, her book suggestions that she showed that I was important. And this is what we should show our students, our peers, our families as often as we can. 

This is the legacy that I will forever value from my mom, and what I plan to pass on to the people in my life as I go through this great a wonderful journey…this…this I know for sure. download-1



Captain America and Deadpool

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We couldn’t be more different.
He graduated high school when I was still in elementary school.
We cancel each other out every election.
He is mini sculptures of former presidents; I am mini sculptures of zombies and Disney princesses.
He’s sweater-vests. I am a different hair color every couple of years.
He is an apple and a banana for lunch every day. I am rice and chicken and salsa and strawberries and kombucha.
He is Captain America. I am Deadpool.
He’s history, and I’m language arts.

And we are partners.

My teaching partner and I have been together in the classroom for six years now. We have experienced the highs and lows of our professions (seeing students move beyond their own expectations despite us knowing that they could do it and seeing students through hardships that they are too young to experience) and the highs and the lows of our personal lives (in our six years, we have each lost a parent, watched our kids go from elementary to high school and his to college).

And through it all, we have remained a strong unit in the classroom. 

Our 145 students share 100 minutes with us per day. They have two sets of eyes on them at all times. With our years of teaching added together…we have half a century of experience under our belts. Between the two of us we have Masters’ degrees. We have various advising positions and various coaching experiences. 

And between the two of us, we are walking examples of how people can disagree and still get along.  We are walking examples of a positive working relationship. We are walking examples of strong individuals who will help each other out through any situation.

And how do we do it? 

  1. We share a philosophy on how we should treat our kids, both in terms of education and discipline. Our kids are just that. When they walk into our classroom, they are our children for those 100 minutes. We show them care and tough love and watch them grow.  While we are teaching under the label of AP American Studies, we have all levels in our classes. We have those students who are naturally gifted, so we work to challenge them further. We have students who struggle, and we work to keep them growing on an individual level. We have students who want to be invisible, and we work to show them, “hey, we see you.” We have students who want to be seen, and we work to show them, “And we see you too.” 
  2. We have mutual respect for each other. My teaching partner is well versed in his subject matter, just as I am well versed in mine. He has experiences in life that are different from mine. And I honestly appreciate seeing life through that lens. And this girl right here has had different experiences than he has, and I’d like to think he appreciates seeing life through my lens as well. 
  3. We compromise and run ideas by each other. Could I dig into ten minutes of your time, so they can finish working with this skill? Do you think this will work? If not, why? How would you handle this situation? Did I sound okay when I addressed her about (insert situation here)? This is how I would handle this situation. You talk to her, she responds well with you. I got him, he and I have talked before. (It’s a little like professional wrestling where we tag each other in when that person is needed to help a kiddo).
  4. We communicate.  We compliment when it is deserved. We give feedback when asked or when we see something that is awry. Students often are privy to us hashing out ideas in front of them, debating issues in front of them, agreeing to disagree in front of them…and also sometimes agreeing in front of them. 
  5. And we laugh. At ourselves. (And frankly, at each other…the other person is usually laughing as well. LOL)

Team teaching can be a rewarding experience for both students and teachers alike. And like any relationship, it has give and take. But if nurtured well, it can be a teaching tool for students to learn not only content, but to also model good communication strategies in a world where shade is thrown, where politicians cannot seem to get along, and where students are searching for more examples of positive human behavior. Look, we may not be “real life Deadpools or real life Captain Amiercas” with our own movies. But honestly, there is no greater gift or power that we can bestow on our kids than a pair of teachers in a classroom that are willing to work together to  battle for them when it comes to curriculum, when it comes to their self-doubt, when it comes to their trying to figure it all out. And when it comes down to it, we would do anything for our kids, and we are lucky enough to be able to do it together. 

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Bright with Possibilities


The first day. 

I remember the feeling of the first day of school. And I’ve had over 30 of them. Many were where I was attending school, and I’m reaching a point in my career where almost as many of them have been in front of a classroom.  What I remember about first days as a student, each and every one? How I felt.

I felt like I could do this. I could do this year even if the one before wasn’t great.

I felt like I could reinvent myself, new hairstyle, new lunchbox, new outfit, new outlook on life, new classes, new friend groups in classes, new study techniques (or lackthereof–see “wasn’t a great year”), new interests in music, art, pop culture, anti-pop culture. The first day of school picture, you know, the one in front of the house that so many families take. 

IMG-3087I felt like I had at least one teacher who just “got me.” Every single year. That one teacher.  Mrs. Johnson with the bows she’d wear on her blouse and walked around the classroom; Mrs. Jennings, my second grade teacher with the short brown hair, who let me write a play and have friends of mine and I perform it for the class–oh, she had the patience of a Saint, because there was a lot of running and chasing in my play; Mrs. Campbell, who wore the red lipstick and seemed to sashay when she walked; she was like magic when she taught; Mr. Bonavita, who insisted on calling me by my last name, but it was never right–who cried while we all listened to live footage of the Challenger disaster, and we were fifth graders and seeing an adult cry was not something we were used to; Mr. Hayden–oh poor Mr. Hayden, who did his best to teach me the French language–he didn’t have a chance (Think Joey from Friends…yep, it was that bad). But boy did he try; Mrs. Klefas–who looked like Mary Poppins and on the very first day introduced herself and said, “I either wanted to be a princess or a teacher, and the princess thing didn’t quite pan out.” There are so many more.  

I felt like there were so many possibilities. And those possibilities were there for me, to grab, to work with.

It hasn’t changed for me. 

That feeling. 

IMG-3069I still get the excitement of that first day just like I did in first grade. When I walk into the building and see former students,  I see them going through their own metamorphoses–their reinventions into the people they want to become. And then I meet my new students, and they, too, embody all of that possibility–each and every one. They have so much they are capable of. There may be so much that they could do that they haven’t even figured out yet, but I can see it. It’s like they glow. And I think–man, they have no idea the power they have as individuals–to change the world, to change all of the possibilities for future generations. 

And I am lucky enough to be a rung on their ladder toward their future. I am able to pass some of my knowledge to them, and what they do with it has So. Much. Possibility. Beyond anything I could probably think of. 

Every year, it’s like this for me. 

And I hope it never changes. 


Going From Automatic to Manual: Shifting through Writing.


Some Back Story: Last month my precious baby boy turned sixteen which means he got his license which means that Mama got herself a new/used Jeep Wrangler and handed down the 140,000+ miles car to her boy.

The thing is, I have no idea how to drive the Wrangler.

It’s a manual.

Do not do this at home, kids. Deadpool is a professional.

How I picture driving a manual Wrangler: There are a bunch of rrrrrrrrr, rr, rrrrrrrr sounds as I push in the clutch, press the gas, switch each gear. Maybe I go off roading (of course I go off roading–it’s my daydream), maybe I get stuck in the mud and I have to shift, shift, shift, to get this baby out… maybe I don’t, either way I am driving around in my automobile like freaking badass Barbie.

The reality of me driving my manual Wrangler: I stall. A. Lot. When I’m going 35, I feel like I’m going 90. And I can’t remember if I’m supposed to put it back into 4th or 3rd when turning a corner. There are so many numbers. And how am I supposed to look at the dials and drive at the same time? And what in the world happened to 10 and 2? How can I keep them at 10 and 2 when I have to shift? And I have to Jeep wave? What? Oh, I threw it into third trying to start from a stop and that won’t work? Why not? How do I know which gear I’m in, there’s this sleeve over it. It’s like the mystery sleeve, guess which gear you are in Zakrzewski? And maybe there are a few choice words…give or take.

It’s a process. I’m working on it.  

I’ve been driving for over 27 years (Oh sweet mother of victory, I did not think the math would give me that number). So, with 27 years of experience, this should be easy. I mean I’ve been driving a car for a long time. Gas means go. Break means stop. Turn the wheel. Easy freaking peasy.

The thing is, even if you’ve been driving for years, learning to drive a manual is just a little bit different than driving automatic. And it takes practice–in all kinds of situations–practice.

And here comes the parallel (kind of like parking–see what I did there with a sweet continued analogy; you’re welcome).

This Is What Writing Is Like for Kiddos.

Deadpool thinks writing is the COOLEST!

They’ve done it for years. They’ve felt like they’ve been doing this since kindergarten. And they have. So when some kiddos come into the classroom and we ask them to write, some become frustrated because they feel they should know how to do this. This shouldn’t be hard for them. They have been throwing their essays into gear for years. But they aren’t in automatic anymore. Now they are in a manual. And that can be very intimidating.

As they move up through the grades, there are subtle changes, subtle shifts. New expectations.

You can’t use I.

Try to avoid passive voice.

You can use one word for emphasis if you want.

But don’t use a fragment here. It’s a fragment.

Oh, but this fragment works because you are emphasizing.

Use a comma here.

You need paragraph breaks.

This line can stand alone…no it’s not a paragraph, but it works.

You can use personal experience.

No you can’t.

You need quotes.

No you don’t.

Can you add more of your voice?

Be more formal.

I have this magnet for the Wrangler…for real. And frankly, I could use it whenever I learn new things. T-shirts, anybody?

So many nuances. So, for writers who were used to writing one way, (maybe the five paragraph way; maybe the flip the prompt way; maybe the “get in and get out” testing essay way) what was comfortable before is now hard.

So what do we do? How can we help teach our young drivers how to shift into different gears and just take off.

Write all the time.

You write. Show them what you do. Show them your mistakes. Show them your corrections. Talk them through your ideas. Laugh at your own phraseologies and savor your own voice. Show your “go to moves.” And write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.

They write. Ask them to tell you how they are coming up with their ideas. Have them show you their mistakes and give suggestions in how to fix them. Talk through both of your ideas. Enjoy their phraseologies and savor their voices. Identify their “go to moves” that you are starting to see.  And have them write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.

There are so many paths to writing. So many routes to take.  So many ways to do it.

And it can be really fun. As teachers, we can take them off roading, off of the five paragraph essay, off the flip the prompt. We can show it as a structure, absolutely, but we can show them how to break the rules and use those broken rules to make something spectacular.

Be patient. These kiddos are just trying to learn how to push in the clutch, shift, and press the gas. Let them keep practicing because that is what it will take to enjoy the ride.

A Special Jeep wave for my girl, Lucy Bennett who graciously loaned Deadpool her Barbie Jeep. 

You Had Me at Hello

Picture this.

It’s 7:45 in the morning. On a Saturday. And I was back at work attending the Literacy Conference.  Hundreds of fellow educators were in attendance. All with cups of coffee or tea or Monsters in hand.

Now, I would love to say that I was enthusiastic about this. Truth is, I had been out late chaperoning my daughter’s field trip to Dayton. We didn’t get back until 12:00 a.m. in the morning. And I woke up at 7:00 a.m. to haul my “middle-aged-I-was-up-past-9:30 grumpy gus” self back to work.

And then it began. 

It began with our children. Dublin’s kiddos who spanned all grade levels, reading their six word memoirs.

Available via (no foam teachers truly exist…it was a metaphor).

First, if you ever want to get a teacher to listen at a presentation, you show us our kids. We become their instant parents…it’s kind of like those plastic pill looking things that you drop into water and the plastic part melts away and a foam figure is left behind. That’s how we are when our kids are on stage, we are in the plastic (I’m tired, I stayed up late) and then the kids come on stage (just add water), and then we are all like, plastic- melts-away, and we are now full-foamed teachers who just love our kiddos.

Second, these kiddos serve as reminders as to why we will sign up for a conference months in advance all enthusiastically.

I was already in tears, and it hadn’t even been five minutes into the program.

Then she came on.

Pic is from internet.That tattoo tho. #amazing

Pam Allyn. A witty, passionate, sprite of a human being, whose enthusiasm for sharing her love of reading to students, to educators,  floated back and forth across the stage. Her enthusiasm, palpable. Her message, empowering. We, we who stayed up late, could do this. We could be warriors in the classroom. We could impact so many readers with our toolbox of skills.

And she modeled them.

She was my coach in the huddle who grabbed my face-mask and said, “Zakrzewski, you’re tired, I get it, but this game is yours. So, go. Do. This.”

So I did.

Session 1: Super Secret Book Clubs.

Book clubs are run by kids. (whaaaaat?)

We read what the kids suggest. (whaaaaaat?)

They set the rules, write their own questions, analyze their own books. (whaaaaaat?)

This is a way for kids to choose the stories that they relate to. That represent them. That show how they feel. Their book clubs, their lives. You listen to them. They listen to you.  It can be done, people. Just show them the way. And these two ladies definitely did. And since then, their clubs have grown.

Session 2: Ignite Student Voice in the Secondary Classroom

With each session I was building a common framework toward a belief I hold close to my heart. Every individual has a story. But as a teacher I understand, that not every student has the confidence to tell it. As my girls from Dublin worked through their presentation, they emphasized “The world needs your story,” “Student voices should be louder than ours.” But sometimes we need to help them with the words, to help them see that their own story, the story of who they were, are, and are becoming, is important–for them and for others.

And then lunch.

Look, I could write an entire ode to lunch. But I won’t. But I can tell you…she who stayed up too late, and then got up at seven, also forgot to eat breakfast…so by the end of the session, she was turning into a snicker’s ad–you know the one, where you become someone else because you are hungry. I’d like to think I was probably Sophia from Golden Girls.

Session 3.

Jason Reynolds with m’girls. 

And it’s at this part of the program where time stopped for me. Enter Jason Reynolds, author of a number of young adult books (All American Boys, Long Way Down to name a couple).

To quote Renee Zelwegger in Jerry Maguire “You had me at hello.”

From his opening with his flight experience to the end where he reconnected the experience to his own writing of young adult literature, I was captivated.

I might have been fangirling.

His main points: humility, intimacy and gratitude. Through writing, he is able to tell stories, his stories, stories of mistakes, of things he’s seen, witnessed, been through, successes and failures. Reynolds creates characters who meet a crossroads and have to choose, and every choice has the potential to change his life. These characters, these people and situations he creates, speak to those who need a voice. They speak to those who have never experienced these situations but should know the situations exist. He creates intimacy between character and reader. And it’s these stories, these written thank yous to everyone in his life and to everyone who is reading them, make me incredibly grateful to have seen him. To witness someone who is inviting us into a world, his world, built by his hard work, determination, many, many stories (and a little Queen Latifah), is an incredible gift to give.

So, while my “middle-aged-I-was-up-past-9:30-grumpy-gus” self drug herself to the conference, my “I-teach-because-I-want-kids-to-have-a-voice-and-be-proud-of their-voice-and-all-the-stories-that-make-them-into-incredible-people” self, left feeling ready to get off the bench and be thrown into the game.

*A huge thank you to all who presented. You gave us your time, your knowledge, and pieces of yourselves. For that, I am incredibly thankful.  (And, I also do not regret attending after staying up way too late the night before. Totally. Worth it.)

signing off-Z 



Getting Back on the Seesaw without Taking a Tail Dive


When I was little, there used to be seesaws–like, legit seesaws. The kind where if your friend jumped off, you were about to take a tail dive into the dirt. Obviously, it was more fun when your friend stayed ON the seesaw, as you could balance each other out. Good old 1980s fun.

So aside from reliving my Golden Girls’ past, there is actually a point.

As teachers, balance can often be hard to manage. We are torn between wanting to give one million percent to our students (they are our kids once they enter our class, after all). And we are torn between our own self-care, something that is often, frankly, brushed aside. We are natural caregivers with everyone but not necessarily ourselves.

We need to get our “full” selves back on the see-saw and stop having our “work” selves cause us take a tail dive into the dirt. But how? How do we do this when there is so much to be done?

Below is a list of activities that you can do. Some cost some green. Some are as free as a hippie at Woodstock.  Some take one minute. Some take an hour. The point is, you must carve out at least a few minutes for yourself on the daily–and maybe at least one hour on the weekly…I try to hit an hour daily if I can, but with teenagers and teenage social schedules, that can sometimes be tough…so I adjust. On those days, I shoot for 15 minutes. (For your ease of use, and so you don’t have to read all of them, I’ve put them in bold…so choose your adventure).

Available on Amazon

*Morning coffee with your tribe. Either rotate buyers or everyone BYOCoffee. Use this to talk about anything but work. Use it to catch up on what your kids are doing, what craft you are making even if it’s something like crafting with cat hair (apparently, it’s a thing, and there is a book about it). Anything. But. Work. Because honestly, if you don’t take a brain break from work, your brain is Going.To. Burn. Out.

*Speaking of tribes–don’t have time to meet? First, wrong, make time. Second, create a friend group on text, Groupme, Facebook, the Snapchatter…whatever.  Send each other feel good quotes, funny memes, a selfie of that hairstyle that you worked on for twenty minutes and then forgot your umbrella during a torrential rainstorm…things that will make you smile even if it is just for a few minutes.

*Jam out to your music on the way to school, on the way home, in between classes. Or better yet, jam out to an audio book (I totally do this, and it may or may not weird some kids out when they are like–hey, Mrs. Z what are you jamming out to? Me: Oh, ya know, a little Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. (Seriously, his book is all kinds of amazing, and THAT VOICE!)

* Work out. There are a lot of places where you can take a class for free to try it out.

*Orange Theory (I totes recommend this–it can be as hard core as you want, and the trainers are motivating…there’s that whole thing where you’re heart rate is up for everyone to see–nothing like a little competition.) Plus, the orange lighting-super flattering.

*Cycle Bar (Oh. My. Gawd.) #1. The trainers are super positive and philosophical little ohm-makers. #2. And, it’s a great workout to loud music club lighting…Really, it’s like clubbing on bikes.

*Title Boxing (Get it Guuuurl). Grading papers got ya down? Take it out on the bag.  Want to feel strong, this is a class for you. I like to channel a little Ronda Rousey when I’m there. In my head–oh, 138 papers to grade? (punch the bag) I think it’s 125 now (punch the bag).

*Straight up, go to the gym. Take your tribe with you to hit some weights, the pool, the track, shoot some hoops (depending on gym.)

*Working out could be as easy as taking a walk to the bathroom on the other side of the building instead of across the hall. It’s legit a sprint because you have maybe 4 minutes to change classes. But sometimes those extra steps are just what you need to clear your head.

*Or simply put, go outside. Go for a run. Ride a bike. Roller skate on some hip and happenin’ old school four wheeled numbers.

*Write. Write your thoughts, fun quotes you enjoy that motivate you…paste pictures…do the bullet journal thing. Plan a trip that maybe you’ll take someday. Oh, Hawaii, someday I’ll see your lovely sands and palm trees.

*Look at photos: For clarification–photos on social media aren’t always the best (as studies are showing). But your own? The ones you take with family and friends and places you have gone. Food that you had two weeks ago that was so good and pretty that you just had to photograph it. (Don’t judge…I’m a foodie). This takes two seconds and can make a difference in your motivation for the day.


And he’s relatively travel sized.

*”Deadpool on a Shelf”–hear me out…I have a Deadpool figurine. He’s posable. And, yes, we leave him around the house holding messages. So, why not have a family one. Or implement it into your classroom if that brings you joy. Deadpool not your thing (WHY? He’s, like, THE COOLEST. SUPERHERO. EVER. But I’m not judging.) Perhaps another figure is more your style…maybe Eeyore (you anti-Deadpool you, J/K)…or Wonder Woman…or even the random bobble head that Uncle Nick gave you three years ago that you are still scratching your head over.

*Scroll Pinterest: It’s like the Sears catalogue for the next generation. I have so many pins I could probably just scroll my own and be totally surprised.

*Speaking of Pinterest….Cook–I don’t always have time to cook; I’ll be honest. But on Sundays I do a lot of meal prep so I can reheat. I try to look up different recipes on pinterest, and I try new ones every couple of weeks.  Sometimes they are good and sometimes they are called Donatos.

*Make lists: Yep, I’m a lister. I list things I’ve already done just so I can cross them out and feel accomplished. It’s easy. It’s free. It’s satisfying. I’m surprised it doesn’t have its own channel on Snapchat…is that what they are called channels? Or…..

*Draw/Doodle:  I have ZERO talent here. But, I can tell you that my students do this a lot…and not so secretly, I love it…and sometimes I  even draw back (although not quite as well as they draw). It takes away some of their stress while they do assignments, and frankly, I enjoy their amusement at my drawing communications.

*Breathe: (this is not an optional adventure) Guys and Dolls, teaching is hard. It’s GREAT. And it’s INSPIRING. But it can be exhausting. And you need to take care of you because you have hundreds (some of us thousands) of kids who are looking to us to be ready to roll on any given Monday.

Other ideas? (Of course there are! Comment on what helps you balance your life seesaw!)

Side note…Deadpool loves Peter Cetera