Voice & Choice.

I woke up at 3 AM and could not fall back asleep. It’s one of those more restless nights and after reading a little and doing some sleepless night yoga-I opened my email.

I know, I know. Probably not the best way to create a boundary with work but I read these words.

“I feel very strongly about this and your class has made me feel like I have a voice.”

Students listening to their classmate read, “She Persisted”.

My student’s email (that was sent at an appropriate time, not like the time it was being read at) delighted and scared me all at once.

Voice.

Student voice and choice are things I find myself preaching to myself often. I believe this is in part to the fact that my mother’s voice is one of the loudest ones in my life. She’s also a teacher. Go figure. So often I will just hear her words. She talks about the power of choices with students and lifting up their voices frequently and intentionally.

It keeps me going when I see that we as adults forget and think our voices are the most important. (Guilty.)

Honestly, I have watched my co-teacher do this for years and I have learned from her. is to bring kids into the conversation and work it out with them. Helping them to edit or adjust where necessary and lifting their voices when we can.

Instead, giving kids a voice can feel dangerous and truthfully, it is dangerous if done without intention or wisdom. For example, if I simply told my students, “Ok you can talk about anything you want, you don’t even need to run it by me.”

This particular student wants to talk about females and sexual harassment.

She quickly expressed, “I have been doing my research and I will present this voluntarily, not even for points.”

I cannot put into words the level of joy her words brought me and to tell you the truth, instant affirmation that I am in exactly the right place.

This past year has not been easy. On any of us. But the lovely part of this is that we are met in those messy, broken, hard seasons.

Here’s to you, dear reader, and all the wonderful things you will do to make the people in your life feel cared for. Right now we are given an opportunity this week or really every week to be empowered people who empower those around us.

And in case no one told you this week, you are a superhero. Go make a difference in this world.

With Love,

Justina

I Meme, I Guess You’re Cool.

My first year teaching I remember learning a phrase that has shaped my teaching forever. No the phrase is not, “differentiated instruction” or “depth of knowledge”. Those would be way too professional.

One of my 7th graders, Gerald* used the phrase, “spicy memes.” 

Gerald was a pretty laid back kid, the type of kid you would simply label a video gamer if you didn’t take the time to understand the true depth of his nerdiness. 

Just about every day he would come in talking about some spicy meme he saw and how it was, “straight fire”.

Oh the joys of middle school.

I would shake my head and go about my day, but there has been no denying over the last ten years that memes have a cultural hold over all of us and it can be a bonding moment if the meme is understood on both ends. 

By my third year of teaching I was occasionally showing memes that I found funny related to American history. The problem being, I often was the only one laughing. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that a history meme only makes sense if the kids are learning the history. 

Laughing at history memes by yourself is not a lot of fun so I decided to do something radical: turning memes into a pre and post assessment. A new way of looking at data and student learning through silly, little pictures with captions. 

Here’s what I do now.

I will take a meme like this-

And show it before we teach American Revolution. Some of the kids may understand it from prior knowledge and laugh or answer questions about what event it pertains to. I try to start off with something more common like the Boston Tea Party to hook them in. 

As the memes go on, they will get a little tougher and more obscure and that’s where I say something totally brilliant like, “So these will be funnier later…” and I’m met with blank stares. It’s a good time. 

Then I teach the unit as I usually would and I wait for the perfect opportunity to drop my dank memes again. Sidenote: I have learned dank means cool. 

Once they are experts of the American Revolution, I show the memes again. Now, as long as I have done my job, this becomes a shared experience for all of us. One that they might only understand on a surface level. 

As one of my students said last year, “So Miss Stewart, basically the only reason to learn history is to understand memes?”

“Yes. That is it.”

And we both knew it was more than that, but it’s the understanding. To hear a history joke on a commercial, TV show or yes, even meme and get it. Not to remember every single date or every single person of history, but an interest in the subject and I hope that they would become lifelong learners. 

Here’s the really fun part, now they share funny history memes with me. Which basically just tells me my job here is done. 

Even more, it shows they are listening and engaged with American history and if it takes a meme to do that, then that’s what it takes.

Live. Laugh. Jazz.

About once a week I get an email from a student in my fourth period class entitled, “Jazz.” Or “Ya Like Jazz?” Or my favorite, “DEFINITELY NOT JAZZ!” And they all contain the same thing.

The Bee Movie script.

Every. Single. Time.

It will go something like this-

Me: Hi, welcome class!

Student 1: Ya like jazz?

Student 2: Hi miss jazz! Read anything interesting lately?

Student 3: I’m going to make you a sign that reads, “Live. Laugh. Jazz.” or better yet, “Jazz. Jazz. Jazz.”

Seriously, this is an every day thing.

Here is what an email of the Bee Movie script looks like. So absurd.

I’ve never seen this so called Bee Movie but supposedly it’s about a bee falling in love with a woman, and the whole thing just sounds very odd.

But it’s our thing.

This group of students know that if they email me the script, it will make them laugh and me smile or sigh or both. It’s the delicate glue that is holding my 4th period together right now. And you know what, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It is the magic of that class. It’s the magic of our classroom community.

It’s silly, weird, and mostly (besides clogging my email) harmless.

Despite my concern, I know they are learning and due to the Hamilton memes they also send me, they are also learning history. Even more so, they are forming lifelong connections and friendships with one another. It’s not the main goal of my class but building a family within our four walls is.

And if a ridiculous plot about bees and nonsense Hamilton memes are what it takes to get a shy girl in front of her classmates to announce that she sent the movie script that day, then I’ll take it. A thousand times over again.

It’s our weird and wonderful. It’s everything I hoped for when I stepped in to Norton Middle School for the first time almost five years ago. How I looked at the brick and wood panelling and knew. I knew in my core that God would change me inside those walls forever. I’m so glad He did.

With Love,

Miss Stewart. Or Miss “Jazzy” Stewart, to you, 4th Period.

Vision.

I’ve been listening to a band called Penny and Sparrow lately. If you have an hour or three, I would definitely recommend them. Particularly a song called, “Duet” featuring Stephanie Briggs. Also, check out “Don’t Wanna Be Without Ya,” and a few other great ones by them.

This past year I started suggesting a book and a song on here. With the premise that life is made a little sweeter with a book and a song.

However, lately, due to my old age (kidding, of course) my vision has become a little affected. While I like to think it’s because I am embracing my grandma persona, it’s a little deeper than that. According to my doctor, stress can play a part in affecting your vision. Apparently, I have been *slightly* stressed out this past calendar year. I have no idea what could add to that stress, but here I am stressed out nonetheless. Sarcasm aside, the 2020-21 school year has taken a toll on me physically, mentally, and at times emotionally. As a girl who likes to pull herself up from her bootstraps it’s been frustrating to have to rely on family, friends, and co-workers at times for simple tasks. One of those tasks has been reading.

For those of you who have dealt with reading issues at any point in your life, I don’t have to state how frustrating this is, especially for a gal who has been reading since a young age. To be reading a sentence and just have the lines blur out is not my typical, I have been fortunate to have fairly clear vision my whole life. Shout out to good genes and carrots, I guess.

While the vision issues may be temporary or more permanent, glasses and good doctors exist. Thankfully. But I won’t take the gift of reading, the gift of clear vision for granted again. As a quote from one of my favorite movies, “You’ve Got Mail” states-“When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

I love this quote. I think of it all the time as I read children books or other books to 8th graders with their faces lighting up or gently falling asleep, as they clutch their chests when a word strikes their heart in a new way. Reading is a lovely thing and to read to a child is a gift to you both. We know we are all children at heart and what is expressed in this is at it’s core: love.

Because when you read a book out loud, especially if there is a season where a person cannot read for themselves, you are sharing the love. The love first expressed by the author, illustrator, editor, and publisher. And then the shared connection between the reader and the audience. Even if the audience is a three year old curled up by your side ready to hear and receive the language of love.

But we have to have vision first. And not just physical vision- but also figurative vision for our small people. Vision for all of our people. An act of love and sacrifice of time in one of the most pure ways possible. Through the written word.

Today, might we all grow in love and go read a good book. Might we all be a little more empowered to share vision and see a world of hope for the young or even older friends around us.

As Penny and Sparrow say in their song,

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere.

To the next generation:

We see you.

We know you.

And we are not going anywhere.

Today started rough.

You ever have those days where it’s just a bad day and you don’t know why? You’re just cranky or moody for some reason.

My day started off just like that. Even coffee didn’t help.

We had a staff meeting at school this morning and I found myself missing the days where I sat in the same room as all of my co-workers. Where they could reassure me after a staff meeting that I’m not the world’s crappiest teacher and I am doing the best I can. Virtual doesn’t provide this kind of assurance and it bums me out. Realizing I use the word, “bums” in exchange for “depresses” because that word is…depressing.

Love a good inspirational quote. Live, laugh, love. Ha.

I’ve been remote for three days and I already wish I were with my students. Talk with them, laugh with them, just be around them.

And then, they did it again.

Middle schoolers found a way to brighten my day and shake the mood I was in.

Four years ago, my co-teacher and I started something called Current Events project. It’s where the students present on current events. Clever title, right? The title is lame but the meaning behind it is not. Students choose something that is newsworthy and relevant, they present on it, and then ask questions that spark conversation. I give them as much structure as needed but they are the ones doing the work.

Today one girl met with me on google meets and she practiced her presentation before sharing it in 5th period. It was on LGBTQ+ laws. Her classmates responded to her questions and were shocked by how recently some laws were passed, that they had not been there before. She crushed it.

And then another group presented on Muslims in concentration camps in China. Their facts were succinct and to the point. They showed the story in full and did not hold back. The response from their peers was outrage and cries for justice. Conversations ranging from what can the government do to what can we do? Who do we talk to about this? It is enough to inspire a bummed out teacher.

I mean, c’mon! They are awesome.

On top of all this, friends and family sent donations for families in need in my community & at my school, and I am reminded of the charitable spirit of my loved ones.

All this to say, that I could have let today be a loss but 14 year olds made it a win. They don’t realize that they are world changers, and yet, every day they change mine. My world has once again been rocked by these wonderful + wild human beings. They are going to do phenomenal things on this earth. Mark my words.

Brown Girl Dreaming.

Book Recommendation: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Song Recommendation: Freedom by Ester Dean

Freedom by Ester Dean

As we walked through and looked at each piece, committing the memory to heart, their eyes searching mine for understanding.

“He looks just like my cousin.”

The young student said it quietly to himself, almost like a whisper. We had just walked out of the Emmett Till memorial. His body language and demeanor struck me almost as much as the words.

That day in the African American history musuem in Washington DC they asked me so many questions.

“What does it mean to jump the broom?”

“Slaves were separated from their children?”

“Why were people not really free after the Emancipation Proclamation?”

Wanting to give them hope but watching as my truthful answers landed with hurt. Hurt of the raw history. The bitter pill many of us have simply swallowed.

That pill is a little hard to swallow when you listen to what happened to a 14 year old kid, away from his parents–lynched over the lie of a white woman and hate of her husband. It’s a little hard to swallow when another 14 year old kid sees himself and family in him.

The story of Emmett Till makes as much sense to me as the stories of Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. I cannot wrap my mind around them and while I want days to process, it is been made evident that we don’t have days. We have fleeting moments and a time right now to speak on this.

I am recommending Jacqueline Woodson’s story told in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming” because I have never experienced a single day in this country as black or brown, but Jacqueline has. Her words strike a chord and connect the thread from the end of slavery, to civil rights, to today. The nod that MLK’s march might of well has been last week instead of 60 years ago.

If these past few weeks have taught us anything it is that fear and anxiety for African Americans is not a thing of the past. It is here. We have to talk about it, learn from these events, and fight for justice. There is not an ounce of space for neutrality or idle acceptance.

Where my words fall short, Ester’s lyrics are clear. As are the words of Jacqueline-

For the 14 year olds who do not want to bury another classmate, another sister, cousin, aunt, neighbor, friend. Let it start and end with us.

Becoming.

Book of the Week:

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Have you heard of her??

Song of The Week:

“Girls Like Me” by H A L I E

My roommate and I have gotten into the show “Songland”. If you have not seen it, you absolutely need to. It’s spectacular.

Two weeks ago a 19-year-old girl took the Songland stage and she expressed with tears building up, “I want it so bad. I don’t have a plan B.”

Ryan Tedder (One Republic) looked at her and said, “Well that’s the magic quote right there. I don’t have a plan B. This is such a crazy career path if you have a plan B, your plan A will not work. Because the second it gets too hard, you will run for that plan B.”

We also watched Michelle Obama’s documentary, “Becoming” on Netflix. In it she tells the story of a counselor who told her she was not Princeton material. Anyone could assume that the comment did not go over well with the future first lady. She proved her wrong and graduated from both Princeton and Harvard in the pursuit of her dreams.

It reminded me of a teacher who laughed when I told her I wanted to be the next Oprah. She told me I would change my mind. I did change my mind, but not because of her. My dreams and aspirations simply changed.

Sometimes I do this with my own students prompting questions as to say, what is your plan B? “Ok, so you want to be Youtube star, what else interests you?” Or, “You want to play for the NBA but did not play basketball this year. Sure.” We get cynical as adults and focus on the statistics over the person.

“That’s why I tell people we focus too much on stats and not story. Stats are like, ‘What college are you from?’ but your story is like ‘What was your grandfather like?’ ‘Who was your favorite relative and why?'”-Michelle Obama

Young people are not statistics, they are comprised of highs and lows, pain, and joy. They are beautiful, well-rounded, multifaceted individuals.

Kids need at least one person to believe in their dreams. To look at them and say, “You’ve got something special in you. I don’t know how you will use it, but I so hope that you do.” They need adults who speak into their lives through raised standards and an endless amount of faith in them. Regardless of where they grew up, how well they did on that last math test, or who their parents are. They mean something and they are becoming someone.

Dear Teens In My Life,

I might ask you questions about your dreams.

I might tell you stories of others I know and what they did to succeed.

I might share with you that my dream changed and that it’s okay if yours does too.

I might ask much of you at times as you fiercely pursue your plan A.

But I will believe in the power of you.

I will ask you to hold on to hope and to acknowledge you are the change in this world.

I will ask you all about your story and look forward to the day you decide to share it.

You are God’s plan A for the world. He did not have a backup in mind for you. You with your bright eyes, dreams, and wishes made on dandelions. You are His first plan. So let’s invest in our plan A like there is no plan B for our lives. Let’s live like we are becoming the people all our stories will one day be about. I for one cannot wait to meet those people.

Watching 8th graders become amazing humans.
Here’s to the class of 2024.

How To Support Local Right Now

*Post updated on 3/17

Hey Central Ohio! Here are some ways you can practically support small businesses during this season.

Quick Tips to Support During This Time:

-Get a gift card from the store to use for later

-Online shopping specifically at local shops near you

-Support Etsy accounts

-Donations to companies you value!

-Get back in there once re-opened 🙂

1. Antonio’s Pizzeria-The Best Pizza In the Universe. (Westerville, OH)

Have to start off with my family’s place (sorry I am biased). I’m struggling to imagine this place that started with my sweet Nonna and Nonno will not have customers gathered around the tables. In the meantime, they are still offering carryout and delivery services.

Current special of make your own pizzas at home!

Website: http://www.antonios-pizzeria.com/

Carryout: Available!

2. Vernacular-A dream boat experience! (Grandview, OH)

One time they were an hour to closing and I was the only one in the store and two of their workers HYPED ME UP. And directed me to sweater options that were right for me. So yeah, I heart these people.

Website: https://shopvernacular.com/

Online Shopping: Available!

Current Hours:

Tues, Wed + Thurs 12p-7p
Fri + Sat 11p-7p

3. Cub Shrub-The Cutest Kids Shop in America (Grandview, OH)

All of the sweetest gifts I’ve purchased for children in my life come from this store. And their toys are organic and locally sourced. I adore them. 

Website: https://cubshrub.com/

Online Shopping: Available!

4. Cherbourg Bakery-Dietary Restrictions? What Are Those. (Bexley, OH)

Gluten-free options that are actually good and nut-free choices! Such a gift. Truly, it is a bakery as cute as the town it sits in.

Website: https://cherbourgbakery.com/shop/

Online options: Available!

5. Prologue Bookstore-Our City’s Brightest Bookstore! (Columbus, OH)

This is the kind of bookstore that allows for good conversation and cozy spots to curl up and read! Such a warm and friendly environment. They are closed through the 16th but do offer online.

Website:https://store.prologuebookshop.com/

Online shopping: Available!

6. Scotty’s Cafe-Hidden Gem of This City! (Bexley, OH)

So near and dear to us is our family friend’s place, Scotty’s Cafe. The people who own this place are salt of the earth kind of folks and they make you feel instantly loved every time you see them.

Photo credit: Scotty’s Cafe and Catering

Website: https://www.cafecolumbusoh.com/

Carryout Option: Available!

7. Soothing Sloth Soap Co.-For Skin Smooth Like Butter. (Cleveland, OH)

Not local to me, but two of my most favorite humans run this business and they are worth supporting! Sean and Zach are local to CLE and angels on earth. I bought a lotion from them a few months ago and save it for only special occasions because I am that obsessed.

Copyright: Soothing Sloth Soap Co.

Website:https://soothingsloth.com/

Online Shopping: Available! (*praise hands emoji*)

8. Stauf’s Coffee-Hot Coffee, Even Hotter People. (Columbus, OH)

Ok, I don’t know about the hot people, but I’m running out of taglines here. Great coffee and service & they are committed to Central Ohio!

Website: https://www.staufs.com/

Online orders: FREE SHIPPING + available!

Current Hours-6:30-6 pm

Carryout option: Available! 

I’ll add on as I learn about more and friends share more with me! Also, I will try to update if these businesses change status. 

Please additionally consider donating to theatres, dance studios, galleries, etc. that are the heart and soul of our city! Musicians and artists depend on concert venues and audiences to make an income. 

Love to you all! Stay safe. 

xoxo,

Justina

Resembling Gumption.

My roommate and I were watching “The Holiday” last night and I can never get enough of this movie. There are a few movies in life where no matter how many times you watch them, they just stick with you. 

One of my favorite lines comes from this movie. Kate Winslet’s character is out to dinner with the cutest old man on this side of the Mississippi, and she says, “You are supposed to be the leading lady of your own life!” It’s revelatory for her and her identity. 

Emily turned to me and asked, “Do you feel like you are the leading lady of your life?”

To which I replied, “Yes! I really feel like I am.”

I couldn’t believe the confidence that came out of me and the power I felt. 

I am the leading lady of my own life.

Naturally, I had to add self-deprecation of, “Well, I do think the world revolves around me…” I don’t think that is necessarily true of me. Sure I am selfish at times, but I think the real truth is that I have changed. I have grown. 

A few years ago I would not have said this, in love with the idea of people who were not in love with me, living at home, uninspired and tired. Watching from the sidelines as my friends lived their lives.

Then, I moved out, started dating more, and taking life up on all the lovely opportunities presented. 

When Kate Winslet’s character ends it with the Royal King of Scum, she proclaims that she has gumption-she finally has that gumption! Just like all those classic Hollywood actresses seem to have.

What is gumption, you ask? 


Gumption is sending your child to school when you are undocumented.

Gumption is jumping off the high dive.

Gumption is communicating “no” with your eyes.

Gumption is taking care of a sick relative. 

Gumption is giving that cute guy your number.

Gumption is going to the movies alone.

Sharing poetry that was written in the sacred spaces of your house.

It’s holding her hand on the first date.

Asking if they are “okay” when you know they are not.

Going to counseling.

Being vulnerable. 

Gumption is bravery. 

“Maybe making something of yourself is as simple as having the gumption to do something bigger than you could have ever imagined, of walking, no marching straight into the center of fear all while playing a horn, blowing your worries into sweet, bold, triumphant music.”-Tanya Lee Stone

Gumption is my older friend giving me a necklace that had been gifted to her during a difficult time. I had to have a conversation I did not want to have, one that would summon strength I wasn’t sure I possessed. The necklace reads, “With brave wings, she flies.” It’s one of my most treasured items that I will get to pass on to a younger woman who needs it one day.

Therefore, I’m declaring today a new holiday. The holiday will be called,” National Gumption Day.” or maybe “Forest Gumption Day,” the title is a work in progress, people! It falls between Christmas and New Years and it’s the time to be brave, face the fear, and living as leading ladies and gentlemen.

Gumption and courage look oh-so good on you. 😉

Our Platform

I’ll never forget the day it happened.

I was maybe 500 feet from the education bldg. at Bowling Green State University.

And I remember the nudge, the calling, the pull. God. Not in the audible sense, but as a thought.

“I want you to help others. I want you in a field that is not about you.”

My whole life I longed to be seen and known. I wanted notoriety. I dreamed of studying Broadcast Journalism, working at a local news station, and grinding all the way up to my big dream of being a talk show host. Hadn’t I been the girl in high school who knew exactly what my plan was? Why else was I putting myself through hours of editing b-roll in the newsroom at school if not for this very moment? Why change now?

1914761_428507063277_575469_n.jpg

WKHS News Anchors

God knew better. He just did. He changed the platform. He changed the narrative.

Today, thanks to our librarian at school, I was reminded of this very moment. How I stopped dead in my tracks and altered my course forever. And the new dream was to love and lead as a middle school teacher and coach in an urban setting.

My students are my new dream. They are the most valued people in my life next to the cherished family and friends.

Sometimes we think we need a “platform”. A space online or in the real world to influence others. I hear celebrities and runway models speak on their platform, and what a gift it is to share their heart on the platform they were given. How they were given a platform as such a time as this. And it so is-it can be such a beautiful thing in the right hands. Platforms can be used for tremendous good in the world. There is no doubt about it. 71879410_1501962093278325_7980288139228872704_n.jpg

As teachers, nurses, firefighters, doctors, parents, police officers, accountants, store managers, we have a platform.

Your platform is bringing lunch to their school when they forgot.

Your platform is cheering them on from the sidelines.

Your platform is holding their hand when they get a shot.

Your platform is adding stickers and stamps to well-done papers. 

Your platform is keeping us all safe. 

Your platform is reading books aloud to children young and old.

Our platform is to do our jobs every single day. To love each person that comes in our path with the best of our ability. To give without holding back. For our families, our spouses, and our vibrant community.

How much better each of those platforms are because of you. You have a platform. It does not look the same as theirs, but your platform, even if it changes one-does something their platform could never do.

Your platform changed that one.

Maybe that one will stop 500 feet short from their new dream. Maybe that one will find a cure. Maybe that one will fight for social justice. That one will move mountains. And that one will have done it because of you. Wonderful, brave, bold, and fiercely loving you.

Never forget your works matters.

Never forget, our platform and our people matter more.