Happy Holidays 2015

Christmas 2015 was especially exciting for me, because it was our first Christmas as a family of 3. I was so looking forward to it because I knew it would be a much needed break from work and a time to reconnect with my daughter, husband, and dogs. So, I did my part to build up excitement and anticipation at school!

I got my hands on these adorable elves, which I placed on my front board alongside a small Christmas tree and a Holiday Break countdown. Every day, I changed up the jokes on the board. Let me tell you a little something about 7th graders. They really made fun of my jokes, saying they were cheesy and dorky and lame. However, they were equal parts excited when they came in the room every day to read them. That’s the thing – to be cool, you gotta pretend things are lame, even if you really like it. Right? After a while, kids even came up to me suggesting new jokes to add. They secretly loooooved it. Enjoy!






We wrapped up our 2015 school year with an all school assembly including a student-staff volleyball game and a blue-slip raffle (blue slips are given to students who exhibit exceptional responsibility, respect, and safety). I received so many wonderful, delicious, and handmade gifts from my students! I was completely overwhelmed at their generosity. So many treats!

I go back to work tomorrow, but I can say I feel thoroughly rested and recharged. I didn’t get any of the work done I planned to, but maybe that’s ok. I got in a lot of snuggles and naps, and a lot of cooking and eating 🙂 That’s what life is all about, right? Hope you had a wonderful holiday season!

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Literature Circles

This is my first year teaching 7th grade, and my first time teaching Literature Circles. A Literature Circle is when a small group of students read a shared book and discuss it as they go, as opposed to the entire class reading the same book in a novel unit. I thought I would share how it went, what we did, and what I would do differently next time. It’s a great experience for students, and definitely the perfect learning activity for cultivating a love of reading.

Literature Circle Books

It was a lot of work to set up the Literature Circles, but once we got them started, it was a breeze. I began by going through my cupboards and pulling out books that I had multiple copies of (at least 4 per class, and I teach 4 classes).

I organized the books on my front board by genre, since that is usually the first thing I like to know about a book. I also looked up the Lexile levels for each of the books, noting for myself which novels were significantly above or significantly below grade level. Next, I printed and copied half sheets of paper for each student as shown below:

Literature Circles

On our Literature Circle kick-off day, I began by simply reading the titles of the books in order. Then I stopped talking. Yes, this is hard for teachers, but you gotta do it – just stop talking! Resist the urge to say everything you know about a book and divulge why you love it. It’s so much more fun to put them into the driver’s seat and let them explore the books that interest them. Otherwise they’d be sitting there listening to you blather on and on about a book they have zero interest in, just dying for you to get to the one they want to hear about. That really takes the fun out of it.

I distributed the half sheets and explained that by the end of the hour, every student needs to rank his/her top 4 book choices. Next, I let them explore the books that interested them. I handed out copies of the books and encouraged students to read the backs and the first couple of pages to make sure the book would be a ‘right fit’ for them. I also pointed out which books were high or low Lexile levels, since that can be an important factor in selecting a novel. I know the students were looking at the number of pages, too, and that’s important as well. Why pick a really long book when you know you will struggle to finish it? I told my students that it’s important to have reasonable expectations and chose a book that you will both enjoy and be successful at.

I gave students all hour to explore the novels and make their choices. At this point, I bet you’re nervous that students began scheming and selecting books that their friends wanted to read. I am happy to report that the scheming was at a minimum. I made sure to emphasize that I can’t guarantee that every student will get his/her top pick, and that it is so very important to pick a book you will be successful with for the next month.

After school comes the hard work. You have to lay out all of the half sheets and organize the students into groups. I aimed for groups of 3 – 5. I would say that about 1/3 of the students got their top pics, but every student got a book in his/her top 4. I also made some mindful decisions to separate particular personalities, a concern that all teachers bear in mind when making groups.

Literature Circles

On Day 2, I announced the Literature Circle groups. We rearranged the room so groups could sit together, and every group had to fill out a cover sheet for their group folder as shown above. The folders were kept in the room at all times (especially important for absences!). Then, I distributed the novels and explained the procedure for the next month.

Every 3 school days, we would have a Literature Circle Meeting. In total, there would be 5 Meetings. Therefore, the groups must divide their book into fifths and determine how much they would need to read to be prepared for each of the 5 meetings. Also, everyone will perform a different role at each of the Meetings. The roles include:

  • Discussion Leader (write 3 – 5 discussion questions)
  • Word Smith (choose 3 – 5 interesting, key, important vocabulary words)
  • Journaler (illustrate and explain 3 key scenes)
  • Summarizer
  • Line Lighter (choose 1 – 2 key passages and explain their significance)

Over the course of 5 meetings, everyone must perform each of the 5 roles once. Before we even began reading, I had each group make a plan for how many chapters/pages they needed to read for each meeting, and who would perform which roles at each meeting. Even if a student is absent, he/she is still responsible for their reading and role – which they know well in advance.

With all that hard work and planning out of the way, it was time to simply let the students read! They were responsible to themselves and each other for being prepared and staying on top of their obligations. Since they chose their own books, I believe they were much more interested and invested in this learning unit. Students wanted to read, and they were excited to talk about their books. I made a point of saying that I believe Literature Circles remind us why people love to read; they love to have someone with whom to share ideas and excitement about their reading.

Literature Circle Meetings

Every 3 school days (time for students to read), we held a Literature Circle Meeting. For the first one, I gave the students a challenge, because students love challenges! I put 8 minutes on my timer and explained that I wanted the groups to talk about their books and ONLY their books for the full 8 minutes, non-stop. I asked them if that sounded like a lot, too little, or just the right amount of time. They agreed it was a wimpy challenge, no problem! Next, we discussed how they would fill up the 8 minutes. I explained how each group member should explain his/her role and share the worksheet they completed. Then, group members should give him/her feedback on their roles. Sounds easy enough, right? Almost every group sped through and finished in less than 5 minutes. Not so wimpy of a challenge!

I had prepared for this outcome, however. While students were discussing, I went around the room (checking for work completion) and placed a laminated discussion card or two at each table group. I purchased the discussion cards from Rachel Lynette here. They are a fantastic resource! Thanks to these cards, we kept the conversation going a bit longer.

After our first meeting, I also took the opportunity to have a mini lesson on what makes a good discussion question. I had prepared a few questions ahead of time that typified clarifying and discussion questions, and we discussed the differences between the two. After Meeting #1, students felt confident that they would exceed expectations for Meeting #2.

Extension Activities

In addition to each of the 5 Literature Circle Meetings, I also planned 5 extension activities for each of the meetings:

Before After Graphic Character

  1. Before / After graphic: Meeting #1: As a class, we discussed how main characters are always dynamic, meaning they change in some important ways throughout the course of a novel. I used this graphic from Creatively Composing to help students work through how a main character in their novel changed. At our first Meeting, I only had them fill out the left side of the body, indicating a typical thing their character would think, say, feel, or do. We finished the graphic later, at Meeting #4.
  2. Symbolic Item: By Meeting #2, students had a pretty good grasp of what kind of person their main character is. I had them select a symbolic item (one that could fit in a paper bag) to represent their character’s personality. The hitch? It could NOT be an item from the book – they had to think outside of the box. We got some pretty creative, abstract, and interesting ideas for this one!
  3. Book Trailer: At Meeting #3, I had students look up a book trailer for their novel on Youtube. I had them watch and critique it to the class, sharing what they liked, what they thought the author got right, and what they would have changed about the trailer if they had made it.
  4. Before/After graphic: At Meeting #4, I had students complete the right side of their Before/After graphic, indicating how their character has changed. Then, we shared as a class. Students noted a theme – most of the characters changed in their feelings or thoughts, not always their speech or actions.
  5. Rebrand Your Book: At Meeting #5, the end of the novel, I told students that they were being ‘hired’ by a publishing company to rebrand their book to increase sales. They needed to give it a new title and cover art. They presented to the class and defended their choices.

In addition to the 5 Meetings and these 5 Extension activities, we also had Library Tuesday and Informational Text Wednesday, just to add variety to our weeks.


What would I do differently next year?

  1. Change up the novel selection – As it turns out, I would probably remove Sunrise Over Fallujah for 7th graders. I’d also like to add more fantasy and historical fiction options.
  2. Less Busy Work – Reading is supposed to be fun. The group roles / worksheets? Not fun. I know I need a way to keep tabs on students and make sure they are keeping up with their reading, but maybe I could streamline this a little bit (or a lot). I don’t want to ruin the experience with banal, meaningless work.
  3. Modeling – I’d like to do a performance Literature Circle for students, maybe a couple of teachers modeling the do’s and don’ts of how to run a Meeting?
  4. Seating Charts – I have assigned seating in my room, and I normally change up the seats every 2 weeks. I do this to help students learn to interact with each other and to discover new ideas. For this month, I grouped students by their novels, and they sat together the entire time. I wish I hadn’t done this. I wish that the only times that students sat with their Literature Circle groups were for actual meetings. This way, they could be learning about other books throughout the month, and they could save their thoughts about their own books just for the Meetings.
  5. Book Pitch – At the end of the month, I’d like students to try to pitch their book to other students in the class. Who better to get you excited to read a new book than a fellow student?

What did I get just right?

  1. Timing – I’m glad I gave them as much time as I did to read in class (3 class days between meetings). I know this is a bit pessimistic to say, but I worry that without giving them in-class time, many books would not get read.
  2. Informational Text – I’m very glad we continued to spend one day a week working on informational text. No one likes to do the same thing all day every day for a month straight! We also got to keep up on our other reading skills.
  3. Discussion Time Challenge – At each meeting, I gave them a time challenge, and I increased my expectations by one minute each time. The first meeting was 8 minutes, and the last was 12. I put a timer on the board so students could monitor themselves. I think this was an important, appropriate challenge for middle schoolers to monitor each other and stay on task for an extended period of time.

So there you have it – my first attempt at Lit Circles. I’d love your feedback! Please comment below on what you’ve done in the past, or any other suggestions you might have for making Lit Circles a success!

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Lockdown Drills

If you work in the field of education, you have become all-too-familiar with the Lockdown Drill. This is our generation’s version of the Duck and Cover. Within my school, we do lockdown drills several times throughout the year.

During the drill, we turn off the lights, lock the door, and sit silently in a corner out of sight from the windows and doors. We remain this way for at least 15 minutes while an administrator, playing the role of ‘intruder’, walks the hallways jiggling each door and peering into windows to see if s/he can find anyone unprepared. This is how its done in every school across the country.

To prepare for lockdown drills, I always keep my door locked – always on the defensive. I’ve covered the windows by the door with paper. I keep a mental checklist of extra steps I would also take in a real lockdown situation, including having students barricade the door with furniture, shoving smaller students into closets and cabinets, grabbing my cell phone, and distributing classroom objects that could serve as makeshift weapons if our door is breached. Sounds pretty scary and….dark, doesn’t it?

You see, I’m quite serious about lockdown drills. Dead serious. I’ve been through active shooter training with the cooperation of our local police  and fire departments. They fired a weapon in the school so we could hear what it would sound like. We practiced triaging and treating students, It was horrific, sobering, and terrifying all at once. I hope I never forget… no wait...never use the critically important information I received in that training.

I recently read this article, and it really hit home. It is written from a teacher’s perspective on the psychological trauma she and her students experience while ‘Rehearsing for Death’ during a particularly memorable lockdown drill with her Pre-K students.It emphasizes something I always tell my middle school students to keep them focused and serious during the drill. I tell them to treat each drill as if it is the real thing. Why? Because it could be, and we may never know. We have both planned and unplanned drills, and they all start the same way. We are simply told to “Go into lockdown.” The word drill is never used.

Preschoolers are hopefully blissfully unaware of the purpose and history behind lockdown drills, but middle schoolers actually know what’s going on in the world and that there is real reason to be frightened. As this mother asks, how do we talk to them about this? How do we mentally prepare them? How do we – can we even – protect them from the psychological trauma of simply living in fear of this very real and possible situation?

Is this upsetting you yet? It upsets me. It upsets my students. It has become our school culture of preparing to die. Imagine how this affects students’ learning and wellbeing. Will it always be this way? Are we ok with that? What will it take to enact a change?

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Baby Footprint Christmas Ornaments Project

What’s that? You’re already thinking about Christmas? So am I! I usually start planning in September. ESPECIALLY for crafts. You may remember a few of my favorite Christmas projects of the past, such as these paw print ornaments and this advent calendar. I love giving handmade Christmas gifts from the heart 🙂

This year, we are making Baby Footprint Ornaments! They are super simple, cheap, and quick – so what’s not to love?

Baby Footprint Ornaments


The entire project cost me only $17.43, and I purchased all of the materials at Michael’s. Here is what I used:

Baby Footprint Ornament Materials

The ornaments themselves were only $1.49 each, on sale for 40% off! I also purchased some acrylic paint for $0.79, a Sharpie paint pen (get oil based so it’s permanent), some metallic cord, and an embellishment (by the sticker aisle).

Other materials you’ll want handy:
* a paper plate for spreading the paint and dipping baby’s foot
* baby wipes for cleaning baby’s foot
* paper towel
* scissors for trimming the cord


First, I laid out all of the materials on the table so they were within arms reach. Once you start, you aren’t going to want to get up to retrieve anything you forgot.

Next, I laid paper towel under my baby’s foot. She’s pretty squirmy, but we managed to keep the paint contained. I kept a hand on her painted foot at all times. You may want to use a drop cloth or old towel/sheet.

Then, I spread the paint on the paper plate. A dime sized amount is perfect. You don’t want it too thick, just enough to dampen baby’s foot. Too much paint makes everything squishy and messy and you don’t get the neat details of baby’s foot.

Dip baby’s foot in the paint (blot off any excess with a paper towel), then roll the wooden ornament up her foot from heel to toe. If you make a mistake (or if baby squishes her toes, because paint feels so cool!), just quickly grab a baby wipe and erase the mistake. The final products above represent at least 3 tries on each ornament. I would wipe, let it dry, and try again. No problem!

Once you have the final look that you like, let it dry for about an hour (depending on paint thickness) before adding your text and/or embellishments.


Good luck, and I hope you enjoy this easy, quick, and cheap project!

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Milestone Celebration!

Celebration Time Cmon

I was very excited to learn that I hit a major milestone on Teachers Pay Teachers. It has been such a wonderful community and opportunity for me for the past 3 years, and I am so incredibly grateful. I made this post a year ago about why I LOVE Teachers Pay Teachers! “It has been a true blessing for me and for my teaching practice. I have learned so much over the past year by meeting and collaborating with other teachers, discussing important educational topics on the forums, and learning how to create engaging and targeted lessons. I always felt that my lesson plans were solid – targeted, authentic, scaffolded, and meaningful – but I never thought to take it the extra step to make it even more engaging.”

This week, I will be celebrating this milestone by offering a FLASH FREEBIE! If you don’t already have it, I think you’ll love this Student Checklist for Revising, Editing, and Publishing for grades 5-9.

Editing Checklist Cover Page copy

It is a checklist of the short but essential tasks that students must complete to revise, edit, and publish their work. The backside of the checklist includes mini-lessons or reminders of each of the editing requirements for quick reference. Perfect for encouraging accountability and independence!

At the end of the checklist, students must sign their name, attesting that they have actually attended to all the items on the checklist.

To all of my followers, collaborators, and fellow educators, thank you for your support, encouragement, and for celebrating this major milestone with me! Have a wonderful week!

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New Year, New Room, New Gig

Happy 2015-2016 School Year Kick-off! I hope you are all having a wonderful start to the year!

Well after teaching 8th grade for 8 years, I have been moved to the 7th grade this year. I will be teaching Language Arts, Social Studies, and FPS Future Problem Solvers (a Gifted and Talented LA class). It’s a lot of change!

To top things off, this also meant a room change for me. Have you ever moved 8 years worth of classroom ‘stuff’? It was a major undertaking! Luckily I am blessed with some wonderful colleagues who leant a hand.

Here is the ‘Before’ picture of my new room (ho, boy…):

Before Classroom

I was able to spend 1.5 days fixing it up, and here is the ‘After’ photo:

After Classroom

I have a LOT more work to do, and I still have a big blank bulletin board at the back of the room. Look for pictures throughout the year as we add to our classroom and make it feel more like home.

Decorating a classroom may seem like a trivial thing to some, but it is very important to me. It communicates many things to my students: that I care, that this is a space they can enjoy, etc. It was well worth my time to give up 2 extra days of my summer to come in early and prepare my room.

Here’s to a new school year with new adventures!

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High Five for Friday! 3-20-15

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.34.52 AM

1. Spring – Happy 1st day of Spring! Spring is my absolute favorite season. The world is waking up and coming alive again. I have green shoots rising from my garden, the snow is all melted, and the world smells of rich soil. It’s the best!

MV5BODMxNjAwODA2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzc0NjgzMzE@._V1_SY1200_CR69,0,630,1200_AL_2. Selma – We went on a fieldtrip to see “Selma” in the movie theaters this week. It is such a powerful movie. During the credits, all of the students (we took up the entire theater) sang along with “Glory.” Afterwards, when they were writing a reflection, many students expressed that they ‘had no idea’ and that this movie really brought the time period to life for them. They didn’t realize that women and elderly were beaten alongside young men. If you haven’t seen this movie, it is definitely a must.

OneOnThisIsland3. Musical – Our high school gave us a teaser performance of their musical “Once on This Island” yesterday. Such talent! I love going to see the high school musicals and witness the transformation in my students, many of whom I haven’t seen since their last day of 8th grade.

IMG_31855. St. Paddy’s Day – I hope you had a fun and safe St. Paddy’s Day. Our 7th grade math department always does these great graphing activities, and they hang them in the hall for admiration and judging. I love this one in particular, which makes me smile every time I walk past it 🙂




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Coworkers and Collaboration


Did you know there is no “I” in teaching? Okay well there is ONE “i” in teaching, smarty pants, but you know what I mean! None of us works alone. None of us can take sole credit for our students’ successes, nor their failures. We are a group, a system, a well-oiled machine, a… professional learning community. In fact, and here’s the real truth of education, none of us can really take credit for even creating a completely new idea. No: we are inspired, influenced, and motivated by others – we stand on the shoulders of giants and build on what has come before us. Like scientists, we hypothesize, develop ideas, collect research, and adjust accordingly. Truly great teachers can take a spark of an idea and mold it into something that is just what his/her students need. We tinker. We tweak. We ‘Frankenstein’ bits and pieces of an idea together. We adopt and adapt until it’s ‘right.’ We are really very innovative scavengers, honestly!

I’ll tell you another honest truth. I may use the word “I” a lot on this blog, I mean I selfishly named it after myself, but none of the ideas on this blog are solely mine. My intent is to share with you my experiences, what works for me, in an honest and helpful way. I scavenge and alter ideas I find on Pinterest, other blogs, Teachers Pay Teachers, any resource, really, that will give me a spark of an idea. And then, I take that idea to my coworker, my partner in crime.

All of our lessons originate with a conversation. “I found something really cool last night!” or “I had a great idea in the shower this morning!” or “I read about a cool idea in this professional magazine,” etc. And then, we brainstorm. We discuss and mold and shape an idea. Are we done? No, we tweak it some more. Then, we try it out with our first hour. In the hall after first hour, “How did that go?” “Well, here’s what I am going to do differently next hour…” and so forth. We never stop. We never even teach the same exact curriculum from year to year. We reflect and record what didn’t work, and then we change it again. The truth is, no class of students is the same, and every class needs something a little different. Nothing is a one-size-fits-all for all students. And that’s something that is a sign of a really great teacher, one who knows that his/her work is never done.

So this post is an homage and a dedication to my amazing colleague. We are yin and yang, socks and shoes, Bonnie and Clyde, Beavis and Butthead (I’ll be Butthead). She’s a big picture person, and I’m a detail person. And sometimes, we switch. Nothing is more true than 1 + 1 = 3.

Do you have an awesome coworker? Who is the peanut butter to your jelly?



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High Five For Friday! 2-27-15

Wow, did February fly by! Week 26 is over, and when we return on Monday, it will be MARCH! Yippee skippy! I hope you had a fantastic week. Below are the highlights of my week.



The Education Dream Team!


1. Author Visit! – We (my coworker, Linda, and I) were THRILLED to host author Trudy Krisher at our school on Monday of this week. She came to provide a writing workshop for our 8th graders who are also currently reading her novel Spite Fences. Students selected an object from a table and developed some creative, sensory language to describe the item. Ms. Krisher had lots of great tips and suggestions for bringing the writing to life. We especially loved when she shared her own writing process, which includes a long and arduous journey of many, many revisions. How lucky are my students?!

Freedom on the Menu

2. Freedom on the Menu – To accompany a chapter in our novel study, we also read “Freedom on the Menu” this week. This picture book is about the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, as told from a young girl’s perspective. It provides a powerful ‘first hand’ account of the events from the questioning, curious mind of someone who doesn’t understand everything just yet. A great read!


3. The Jungle – In Social Studies, we are learning about the Progressive Era. When we reached a section in our text about muckraking, I had my students read select excerpts from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which is about the horrific conditions of the meatpacking industry during the Gilded Age. I think more than a few students walked out of my classroom as vegetarians 🙂

Political Cartoons

4. Political Cartoons – The Progressive Era is known for its many political cartoons. These are often very challenging for students to understand. To that end, I created a packet of cartoons, and we analyze one cartoon a day. This gets them into the mindset of analyzing the imagery, background, and message of the image beyond just the literal. As a culminating project, I will have them create their own political cartoon about an important concept from our unit. They did a rough draft today, and there were so many great ideas! It is very rewarding to see their minds develop right before my eyes.

1932261_10152869235283628_6688987376073204502_n5. Important Words – I came across this image on facebook this week, and it definitely struck a chord. I have learned in my years in the classroom that some students desperately need/want attention, and they will take any kind they can get (positive or negative, and sometimes both in the same hour!). I have a student who recently started a new habit where she comes and gives me a hug at least once a day. That is just one of my many jobs; educator, cheerleader, nurse, librarian, bookkeeper, accountant, part-time-parent, disciplinarian, and sometimes, a hug-giver.


How was your week?




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High Five for Friday! 2-20-15

Week 24 is in ‘da books! Below are this week’s highlights!

Zeke's Cart (c) Kristen Dembroski

1. Author Visit – Trudy Krisher is coming in just 3 days! We are so excited! In preparation for our discussion of her novel, Spite Fences, we have been preparing a display of items that would be found in Zeke’s Cart (a main character from the novel). Students are bringing in ‘white elephant’ type items that we will do a creative writing around under her guidance on Monday. Can’t wait to share that with you!

Assembly Line Production (c) Kristen Dembroski

Assembly Line Production (c) Kristen Dembroski2. Assembly Line Production – We also did a fun activity this week in Social Studies, engaging in a hands-on experience with the pros and cons of assembly line production. I had students time themselves and compute average production time per item (and yes, they got to eat the final product, a cookie ‘burger’). Needless to say, this activity was a big hit! They loved it, and they even cleaned up after themselves and asked if we could do it again. I liked exploring this important element of our modern economy and discussing the benefits and potential chllenges it causes as well.

Valentine's Day Close Reading

The History of Saint Valentine's Day (c) Kristen Dembroski

3. Valentine’s Day Activities – On Friday of last week, my Language Arts class also completed this Valentine’s Day Close Reading activity. We have been focusing on close reading and finding supporting evidence all year in all classes, so this was a good review. It’s also kind of interesting to learn facts you didn’t know about this popular holiday.

Readbox Doors (c) Kristen Dembroski

4. Readbox Doors – You may have seen my earlier post about the Readbox Bulletin Board I put up in our cafeteria. Well our student-run art club also made some additional Readboxes that could be displayed throughout the school. I think they turned out great!

Ermahgerd Ernamerts (c) Kristen Dembroski5. Just For Fun – I thought I’d share with you a project I recently completed. If you follow this blog, you know I love to hand make all my gifts (whenever possible). I found this awesome pattern on steotch.com and it just makes me chuckle every time. My husband is always making ‘Ermahgerd’ jokes, so I mostly made this for him. If you like ironic, snarky cross-stitching, then head on over to steotch’s website or etsy page for some laughs.


I hope you had a great week and that you aren’t totally frozen or buried in piles of snow. It is bound to warm up soon, so hang in there!


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