Heather Hollands and Amy Laitinen are two high school English teachers from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They are on the leadership team of the Northern Shores Writing Project, a satellite of the National Writing Project. Amy is Teacher of the Year in the Gwinn Area Community School District, and Heather is a past Teacher of the Year. To celebrate their 10th Anniversary in the classroom in 201o, they decided to start a blog to chart their journey. It an organic writing endeavor to help them reflect on their roles as writers and educators.
The Hamy Story, As Told By Heather
Thelma and Louise. Bonnie and Clyde. Rachel and Monica. Phineas and Ferb. Heather and Amy. Since we first met, we have enjoyed sharing our teaching and professional development experiences. Through that, we have become the closest of friends. We support each other’s successes, we share positive classroom stories and sometimes vent during lunch, we present together on what we’re learning, and now we are collaborating on a blog to celebrate our 13th year of teaching together.
Heather and Amy. Some of our Northern Shores Writing Project colleagues call us “The Dynamic Duo.” A Writing Project friend from lower Michigan, Corey Harbaugh, wrote a limerick about us as “The Siamese Twins of Gwinn.” Our beloved Writing Project mentor Jan Sabin simply calls us “Hamy.” Ann Chappel, our Writing Project friend from the Traverse City area, asked us one time on Facebook when would we tell the Hamy story. “When we retire,” I joked, but her suggestion planted the idea that we should start documenting our experiences.
We first met in an English methods class at NMU, taught by Tom Hyslop, in the fall of 2000. It was the semester before we would embark on the life-changing experience of student teaching. My first impression of Amy was that she was a pretty girl, tan with long black hair, probably Greek or Italian. Actually, she’s Finnish like I am. I remember her wearing dark blue jeans and high heel boots. She always looked well put together and clicked when she walked. She waitressed at a popular restaurant in town, Vango’s, and my family went for pizza there that year on Halloween. My daughters, three and one, were amped up on sugar. Amy worked that night behind the bar. I remember her wearing a shiny gold toga and a laurel wreath. In the hub-bub, we said “Hi” to each other and I hoped my daughters wouldn’t cause too much ruckus.
Amy would student teach at Negaunee High School and I would student teach down the highway at Westwood High School. Our supervising teachers Connie Heinlein and BG Bradley had participated in the Writing Project Summer Institute together, and they each encouraged us to apply.
Most teachers say that the Writing Project changed the way they teach. Because we took the summer institute before our first teaching jobs, we say that it shaped the way we teach. Jon Davies, the director then, taught us to use humor in the classroom and that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves. I remember him saying never to hold a grudge against a student; each student deserves a million chances. He taught us the importance of telling stories. Co-director Ragene Henry showed us that in order to be a teacher of writing, it’s important to be a writer yourself. She encouraged us to keep a writer’s notebook and shared her own published books.
Jon saw the passion that Amy and I had for teaching and learning. He invited us to return as interns for a second Summer Institute. He also invited us to participate in action research about how to develop continuity in a rural site. He signed us up for conferences (I still remember Amy and I jumping up and down and us hugging each other when we were asked to go to Arizona for a Rural Sites conference), and he gave us the opportunity to present at our first national conference in California. I think Jon knew we would stick around for the long term, and his intuition was right. Now we are part of the Northern Shores Writing Project leadership team.
When we had taken Tom Hyslop’s methods class, I remember Tom saying that teaching jobs were scarce in the U.P. “Don’t get your hopes up to find a job around here,” he said, “because they just aren’t available. You have to be willing to relocate.”He was right. There weren’t many jobs available around the U.P.; however, two English positions happened to open up in the same district, Gwinn. One position was for broadcast and print journalism; the other position was for English 9 and English 10. Amy applied and was hired out of a large field of applicants right away. I applied later and was offered the second position. The guidance counselor had called Amy to ask if she knew me, and she encouraged Amy to nudge me to accept the position. Amy told me about the call the next morning while we were in the Summer Institute class, and I accepted the job during our lunch break that day.
In part, we were hired because we had strong recommendations and portfolios; however, luck was on our side, too. Amy had a background in broadcast journalism and I had a background in print journalism. The principal split the journalism position so we could each teach our specialties; he gave Amy English 9 and me English 10. We would teach right across the hall from each other.
That is when we began to notice our uncanny similarities, and our friendship deepened. We showed up to school with the same desk set. Sometimes we would find ourselves wearing the same outfit, but in different colors. Our birthdays are 10 days apart; we grew up just 30 miles away from each other; we both graduated from college and worked in journalism, then decided the same year to go to NMU for our teaching certificates; Amy’s childhood nickname was Sugarplum and mine was Plums. The list goes on. One day I was looking through my high school yearbook, and found a poem written by Amy. She had published the poem in our local newspaper, and the yearbook editor from my school liked it and called Amy to see if she could include it in our yearbook.
Deeper than all these similarities, though, Amy and I share a passion for teaching. We love to explore new avenues together, and the Writing Project has afforded us the opportunity to receive mini-grants for our inquiries and the ability to travel together to attend conferences around the country. We’ve traveled to Lower Michigan, Tucson, San Francisco, Folsom, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York City, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Austin, and Orlando. A highlight of our teaching careers was traveling to Poland and Israel to learn more about the Holocaust.
Over the years, we’ve handled a lot of ups and downs. There have been tears and smiles throughout our journey. We each were laid off during separate summers. It was a scary experience getting that pink slip and thinking about having to uproot ourselves and move away from the U.P. Fortunately, we both were rehired before the next school year started. Amy’s husband Mike was sent to Iraq, and I tried my best to support her when he was gone. My daughters prayed for Mike every night. When he returned, they dressed up in Disney princess costumes to welcome him home. My little Mikayla was so excited when she saw his bus that she jumped out in front of it and almost got run over. Our emotions went wild that day!
Speaking of our husbands, they have a lot of similarities too. They both are Army veterans, having been stationed in Germany; they’ve both suffered traumatic brain injuries and lost their taste, of all things; they support us endlessly in our ventures; the list goes on for them, too.
So this is our story. We hope you will browse the pages of our blog, which represent our shared experiences. Many of our best memories include the National Writing Project. You’ll see our interest in collaborative writing, digital storytelling, writing marathons, Holocaust education, and more. Thirteen years have passed since we first shared an interest in teaching, but we hope this is just the beginning of our Hamy journey.