Tidying up a Clutter Collector

A number of years ago I attended an “Organize for your Personality Type” worksheet with my friend Carla. We are both pilers and like our belongings in piles where we know what’s in the pile and heaven help anyone who moves or tidies that pile. From this worksheet I learned that decorative boxes are great for piles because they contain and beautify the pile.  I felt validated in my “organizational style.”

I did boxes for a number of years… and then I got married to an “everything in it’s place” man. He has tried his best to keep his hands off my piles but when they spill out of the box and over the floor he cannot stand it and must at the very least straighten up the pile. I can see his point. It doesn’t look calm or tidy to have piles of papers covering my desk or spilling from a box in the living room.

All that to introduce my current book obsession – organization and minimalism. Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful in my quest to create a calm and comfortable home which balances my need for piles and my husbands need for simplicity.

1. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up


Where it all began.

I read this book after seeing it on the local library website and hearing about it on NPR. The author’s ideas are stunningly simple and practice.

I have tackled one area of our house at a time (as suggested) and find that once I get things organized I really don’t want to add items to clutter up the space. It really has helped me let go of many “just in case” and “one day I might need it” items.

Due to my teaching schedule, I tend to do these projects during breaks. This actually works well because it makes me feel productive over break and creates a more streamlined home for when I head back to work.

Honestly, I don’t do everything the author advises and I have not joined the Pinterest bandwagon of humble-brag photos of how organized my house looks with a hashtag of the author’s name. I also still have one box of photos and papers that I just can’t buckle down and sort through. I’m not ready and I’m OK with that, for now.

2. At Home with Madam Chic

athomewithmadamchicThis book is really part of my French Life obsession but it does double duty of giving some good advice for reducing wardrobe and activity clutter. It is very practical with the added bonus of giving daily routine advice to create a calmer life.

My take away idea from this book was daily routines are good and I can live with less clothes. It’s true. I only have 6 outfits for work and I just rotate through those outfits each week. If anyone at work has noticed they haven’t commented and it makes getting ready for work much faster.


3. Lessons from a Blue Bike

notesfromabluebikeThis book took me from thinking about clearing out clutter to reordering my life. The author does a great job of digging into the distractions and demands that create a hectic pace in life and addresses big and small ways to deal with those demands.

I appreciate her perspective on “American life”since she grew up in America but lived in several countries before settling back in America. She describes her attempts to bring what she learned from other cultures into her family’s American life.

My take away idea from this book was look for ways to buy local and fresh food.


4. Cozy Minimalist – Minimalism Redefined

cozy-minimalist-okdani-blogThis is a blog post I came across last month and I loved the author’s explanation of “cozy minimalism.” I have struggled with how stark many minimalist homes appear. This author explains that minimalism doesn’t have to be stark or boring. She keeps it real in her writing about her journey with minimalism and the realities of life.

I ended up reading a number of her blog entries which is always a sign of a blogger I can relate too.

My take away from this blog was it’s OK to want to be comfortable but don’t let things overwhelm your space.



5. The Joy of Less


I read this book last week while on winter break. It’s a very skimmable book with lots of good advice for each room of the house. The author has an acronym for the decluttering process and then applies it to each room of the house.

My take away from this book is surfaces should be clutter free. Not that they should be bare, simply that anything on a surface belongs there and is intentionally there. With this in mind I tackled one of my worst clutter spots – my desk. I limited myself to three items on my desk and threw away or organized everything else. It has created an area that gives me peace when I look at it instead of a feeling of “I have got to take care of that.”

All this organizing makes me realize I have to tackle my biggest area of clutter, my classroom. My new quest is to figure out how to have a cozy minimalist classroom.

Any suggestions?





Wedding card display

Last summer I finally got my act together and organized my wedding keepsakes. In my last post I described the books I made to organizer the mad-lib RSVP cards and the mad-lib wedding advice cards from our reception. The same day I did that project I tackled finding a way to display the lovely wedding cards we received. Pinterest to the rescue (seriously, it’s a hobby). After much searching I found a creative idea on the following blogs: Veronika’s Blushing, Modge Podge Rocks, and Something Turquoise.

I consulted with my husband (since he would have to look at this artwork too) and he decided he liked square cut outs over circles or hearts.

Off to Hobby Lobby for the square punch, glue dots, and a canvas. I took me about 30 minutes to do this craft. Deciding on the arrangement of cards took the most time.



I then took the canvas to Hobby Lobby for framing along with our “guest book” thumb print canvas.

I love the result.


Advice for teaching middle school

I know many teachers are terrified of middle school. Elementary teachers see the kids as annoying and willful. High school teachers think they are immature and annoying.

I have joyfully taught middle school for 16 years now. I find them aggravating and delightful. I think the key is to see them for what they are “childish wanna-be adults.” Middle schoolers want to be treated like adults but act like children. At the same time they are confused about all the changes happening to their bodies, minds, and relationships. When I am most aggravated by my students, I stop and remind myself that middl schoolers are scared out of their minds and make poor decisions. That allows me to have more compassion toward them and also be as consistent as I can.

Here are a few general principles that guide my teaching and help me to successfully teach middle school students.

1. They are not here to learn they are here for each other

This is the mantra my mentor teacher taught me. (She taught middle school for over 20 years and was invaluable to my development as a teacher.) 16 years later, it’s still true. If I can build in structured “socializing” I can get more content covered.

What does this look like and sound like?

I always have student seats in pairs. On the first day of school I inform students that I know they love to talk to each other. I will give them time to talk but it will be class focused. Oddly, to a middle schooler that makes sense and is fair.

I teach my students what partner talk looks like and sounds like. The first few days of school we practice partner talk. I use Kate Kinsella’s “4L’s of Productive Partners” to give students clear directions for partner talks. Below is a sample (not my  room poster).  I also have a poster that clearly explains noise levels for the class. I give students non-content based questions to discuss with partners to practice partner talks for 60-90 seconds. At first I tell students who goes first and who goes second (“Door side talks first then clock side talks second”) but eventually they regulate themselves.  I then give praise to partners that did an outstanding job of partner talk.


I also countdown when I want students to wrap up their conversation. I learned to do this from one of my most challenging classes EVER. After repeatedly fighting for control with that class, I stopped instruction one day and we had an honest conversation about what needed to change. The students told me that they felt it was unfair that I told them to talk to their partner then suddenly expected them to shut-up. They were right. 12 years later that conversation still sticks with me.

Now I count down from 10 when I want students to wrap up their conversation. For extra challenging classes I use a woven rattle that I shake about 5 seconds before I count down. This is a non-verbal signal to wrap up. Oddly, challenging students will pay attention to the warning of a rattle more than my voice. Whatever works.

Once students are trained, I frequently use partner talks to give students a chance to talk but I give them the topic. I use partner talks to have students discuss a main character or what is a good adjective to add into a boring sentence. It takes less than 2 minutes from my instruction but adds time in the long run.

I have to reset student behavior for partner talk about every 10 weeks (6 for challenging classes). I feel it is worth it because they don’t take time socializing since I give them a structure in which to do it.

2. Knees under the desk


This book has good ideas but is can be overwhelming. Take what helps you and leave the rest for someone else.

I read this in the book “The Essential 55” 10 years ago. It has transformed my classroom. From the first minute of class I tell students they are expected to keep their knees under their desk. I expect this because their attention follows their knees. If they sit sideways they get distracted and end up in trouble for being off task. I police this more than any other behavior in my class. Because it eliminates most of my behavior problems!

If I set it as a standard from the second they sit down, my students fight me less on doing this. My more vocal students will argue with me and I simply repeat my expectation and point out that I noticed they were not sitting correctly BECAUSE they started chatting which proves my point. If they keep arguing, I repeat my expectation.

I have explained my policy to a number of parents and they all (no matter how hostile) will agree that it makes sense.

3. Set clear boundaries

In the original Jurassic Park movie there is a scene where they are discussing the Velociraptors. The old guy explains that they have to keep them in a special area because they kept getting out due to the dinosaurs repeatedly “testing the fence.” This describes middle schoolers, perfectly. They are constantly “testing the fence.” This means you need to have a strong fence or they will run wild and destroy your world.

Set boundaries and stick with them. Make sure you can hold the fence. Consider: entrance/ exit procedures, sitting in seats, late work, progressive discipline. What is reasonable to expect from these “child-adult” hybrids. How will you teach students what you expect (they aren’t going to guess)? What will you do when they don’t follow the rules?

4. Firm but fair

This is another mantra of mine. It comes from my father and his philosophy of raising kids. Be firm but fair.

What does this look like in a classroom?

teachingwithloveandlogicWhen dealing with disrespectful and argumentative middle schoolers – be firm but fair. Speak in a calm voice (as much as you can – I lose my tempter more often then I want even after all these years). Do not argue, repeat expectation. Middle schoolers want to know why before they will comply. I think that’s true of adults as well. However, I’m not going to engage in a debate about it. I will explain why once.

A book that helped me with this idea is Teaching with Love and Logic. It gives practical ways to deal with a variety of student behaviors.

5. Go slow to go fast

I learned this in a curriculum training. It really frees me from feeling that I’m wasting time by teaching behavior or that I’m not covering enough content.

It is really hard to teach right now because district and state people are breathing down our necks demanding we slam through a prescribed curriculum and then blame teachers when kids don’t magically learn everything.

That said, I carve out time the first week of school and the first week back from Winter Break to cover classroom expectations and procedures. Even a quick 5 minute lesson and practice on entering and exiting class can gain me time in the long run. If my students know what to do they waste less time or at least can’t pretend it is my fault when they waste time.

When I’m trying to teach a challenging grammar idea I remind myself “go slow to go fast.” This goes back to credential program where we all learned to scaffold learning.

Honestly, we can cover every idea poorly or teach a few key skills well. As much as I can I try to teach lasting skills well. There are content standards I have to teach (even though most of my students are not cognitively ready) and I do not beat myself up over them. However, there are a few key skills that I know they must have in order to survive in high school. Those I repeatedly come back to or at least cover 3 times during the year.

6. Dangerous, gross, or slightly illegal?

Middle schoolers love when they think something is dangerous, gross, or slightly illegal. With this in mind, at times I will introduce ideas or activities that I tell students meet one of these criteria.

For example I rarely let me students all get out of their seats at the same time. If I want them to interact with a number of students or do a gallery walk I introduce it by telling students we are doing something dangerous today. They are hooked! I then tell them they are getting out of their seats. They of course tell me that’s not dangerous. I respond, “It’s dangerous for me!” They think that is hilarious. Before they do the activity, I clearly explain what I expect and tell them it if because this is so dangerous. They buy in because I made it seem dangerous.

Another example is when I show a video related to a lesson. I introduce it by saying we’re not supposed to watch movies so they can’t tell anyone we did. Or if I do an end of unit activity, I tell students that they can’t tell the Principal about it (in reality the Principal doesn’t care). I’ve now made the activity slightly illegal. They are hooked.


Those are six of my tried and true philosophies for teaching middle school. I like teaching middle school because I know they need a calm and reassuring person in their life. Someone who’s not going to lecture them (they get enough of that) or going to let them run wild.  Despite what most people believe, middle schoolers can be a joy to teach.










Wedding RSVP book

Last summer I finally tackled the box of wedding souvenirs  I had stashed in a corner and kept moving around and telling myself I would do something with them soon. Yup, four years after our wedding and I finally buckled down to do some post-wedding crafting.

I had two main projects. First was making a memory book out of our RSVP cards. Usually, people don’t keep these but our RSVP cards were mad-lib fill in the blank cards and I treasure the funny messages people sent us back. After scouting Pinterest (what a surprise I was on Pinterest – It’s a hobby I tell you) I used these blog posts for inspiration: Something Turquoise,  My Chocolate Moments, and Nerd Nest

I traipsed off to Hobby Lobby (whoot, whoot) and gathered my materials. It took me about an hour to make my book and I am pleased with how it turned out.


This is much nicer than stuffing cards into a box in the back corner of the closet.

I then made a similar book out of the wedding advice mad-libs from our Wedding Reception. We had two different versions and sizes that we left on the tables at our reception. It was a challenge to get the two sizes into one book. I ended up folding the skinnier pages so they fit inside the book.

Now I have two lovely (and organized) keepsakes from our wedding.

Viva France vol. 1

I have a small obsession with books about France. Specifically, books about American women living in France. I am enamored with the French idea of LIVING life and savoring the moment. I know my idea of what that means and the reality of daily French life is probably skewed. However, I still keep devouring books about France. Here are a few I have read cover to cover.

1. Bringing up Bebe


This is the book that started my obsession. I read this after a pregnant friend told me about it. I wasn’t pregnant but I found the author’s description of French life fascinating. While reading the book I realized I had heard the author on NPR talking about the French daycare system and she said “It is just easier to raise a child in France.” This book talks about that and French social customs.





2. Forever Chic

foreverchicThis was my second book about French life. The author is a journalist living in France. She is a woman of a certain age and the book is geared toward middle age women. My biggest takeaway from this book was the idea that French women wear make up and dress nicely “because it is polite.” It shows a level of caring about other people to look nice for them. This still motivates me to make an effort to look nice even if I am just running to Target – “because it is polite.”




3. Lesson from Madame Chic

madame-chic-final-coverThe author lives in southern California and was an exchange student in France. This book is full of practical advice for how to live with less and enjoy the moment. I like how the author begins with a story or observation from her time in France and then describes how she “translates” the idea into American life.




4. At Home with Madame Chic

athomewithmadamchicAfter I finished Lessons from Madame Chic I jumped straight into the author’s second book. This book has a plethora of advice about making a house a cozy “French” home and about daily activities to practice the French way of savoring life. She also describes how to simplify life with kids (the author has two young daughters) and not get caught up in the hectic pace of American life. There are a number of recipes for making home cleaning products.



5. French Toast

frenchtoastThis book was the first I found that took a more critical look at French life. I appreciated the honest assessment of some of the challenges of French culture such as how difficult it is to have close friendships and how hiding wealth from the government is a badge of honor. The author is even handed in her description of French culture and the challenges of being an American in France.



6. Words in a French Life


I adore this book. It is my second favorite book on French life. First because the author does not live in Paris but in the South of France. Second because she is clearly a bibliophile and loves word study. Each chapter is based around a French word or concept and the author tells stories about learning the word or idea. I love books that make me spontaneously laugh and this book did that a number of times. The author has a clever way of telling stories and has a large dose of self depreciating humor.





7. On Rue Tatin


This is a cookbook and life journey log. The author actually has a cooking school in a small town in France. People can go to her home/ cooking school to learn about French life and French cooking. The book discusses the author’s love of food and her husband’s loving restoration of the sprawling and dilapidated French home they purchased. Each chapter ends with a number of recipes. Some recipes are intimidating – I don’t even know where I would find those ingredients. While others are more accessible – I recognize all those ingredients and could make that. I actually bought this book and have tried a number of the recipes in it and they turned out delicious.



8. Lunch in Paris 


This is currently my hands down favorite book about French life. The author is a freelance writer and has the funniest writing style. I laughed and giggled throughout the story due to her turn of phrase or aside while telling about living in Paris. She is also even handed about French culture and describes the good and the bad aspects of living in Paris. This is more of a memoir than the other books. I found it amusing and delightful.






There you have it. My top eight books about French life and culture. Which one will you try? Which book would you recommend I add to this list?