We all know the benefits of reading in school. That's not something I need to discuss with anyone coming here. We all spend endless hours planning and revising our reading blocks - figuring out how to squeeze in more independent reading time, how to have one more conference each day, how to build the conversations in our class and how to teach students to make reading strategies their own.
This year, I have not backed away from any of that but I have been intensely focused on building up my students' lives as readers...outside of school. I know that we can spend hours reading and discussing our reading in our classroom but that if students haven't internalized the deep desire to read everywhere they go, then what have I left them with? A bunch of strategies and some memories of great discussions and read alouds? No...I want more.
Our school is brilliantly located - in an urban/suburban hybrid neighborhood (seriously, can someone tell me what the proper demographic name for this type of neighborhood is?). Most houses have small yards and we can all still walk to a movie theater, a ton of diverse restaurants, a couple of parks and community centers and more! And best of all...our school shares the same parking lot as...OUR PUBLIC LIBRARY!! Does it get better? I think not!
I have worked with our incredible children's librarian, the brilliant Desiree Fairooz, to blur the boundary between our classroom and the public library. As a class, we go every Friday. Even when it rains and snows and we have indoor recess...we bundle up and run across as fast as we can - while being safe of course! Even when we have a zillion things to catch up on. Even when we have to race back to make an assembly. Why? Because I might be the first one to introduce my kiddos to the public library - see M's happy face when he got his first ever library card. Because I want them to see it as their home. Because if something is important, we do it. A lot. And we don't sacrifice it.
My students come from a variety of backgrounds - cultures and languages and incomes and lives - but every single one of them sees themselves as a reader. Dylan, who can't put his Harry Potter book down. Max who is new in the country and learning English and ASL at the same time while keeping up with his Spanish books. Aunima who is venturing into chapter books with one foot in. Efrata who realized that although she is a "pink, princess fairy girl", she still loves the Origami Yoda series. Every one of these kids has had an epiphany in our public library. Every one of them has whined when we had to leave. And every one of them - every single one of them - has since visited the library on their own time, dragging their parents after school, signing up for the Paws to Read program to read to a dog or taking their younger sibling to a toddler story hour.
Our weekly field trips across the parking lot have been the best investment I could have made this year. They know the librarians by name, they know how to find what they need, they know their favorite corner to cuddle up with a book. They even feel so comfortable I have to remind them they can't hang out behind the counter! This is no longer just the public library - this is their library. And no one can take that away from them!
It's time to CELEBRATE This Week with Ruth Ayres from Discover. Play. Build. Every Saturday, Ruth invites us all to celebrate (and share our celebrations). What an amazing way to reflect on the week, rekindle the joy we felt and share our happiness with others! For more information, visit the Celebrate This Week page.
Life is truly about celebrating - not just the huge moments, but the mundane, every day, ordinary moments that deserve their chance to shine!
- I was a couch potato...and I peer pressured my husband into being one also! Now this may sound completely awful but...OH.THE.BLISS! My husband and I are usually running around like lunatics and the first day of relaxing felt...odd. We felt guilty. We felt unproductive. We felt lazy. But little by little we relaxed into a wonderful rhythm of reading (Sisters Grimm for me), napping and watching an episode of Once Upon A Time. This was our first break where we haven't traveled and I was worried that we would not be able to relax at home. But we did! It was a good reminder for us to just let our bodies and brains unwind once in a while!
- I spent time with friends - a dinner here, a lunch date there and I felt rejuvenated. Besides forcing, I mean allowing me to get out of my pajamas once in a while, reconnecting with friends allowed me to laugh, reminisce and dream. Sometimes I think that kids seem more carefree (though I know their lives are just as complicated as ours...and without the same power) because they are simply more connected with friends and enjoying the bliss of companionship.
- Finally, I cleaned up! Another really exciting one, I know! But honestly, I have realized over the past few years that my mood is SERIOUSLY affected by the environment around me. So I plunged into cleaning my "retreat" which I would like to enjoy more often next year! The main step was to simply get rid of A LOT of random "stuff" that has accumulated. I want to start the year by de-cluttering both tangible and intangible extras to make room for all that I love and cherish!
I hope to make this a regular habit and I CAN'T WAIT to get back to my students and share classroom celebrations here as well!
Yesterday, my class had that Magic Moment.
If you're a teacher, you know exactly what that moment is.
It's the beginning of the day and the kids are coming in as you greet them. Then suddenly, you have to step out of the room for some reason - to talk with a parent, because some catastrophe is going on down the hall, whatever - and as you are dealing with this you are sweating. With each passing minute, your heart is pounding because you are wondering what is going on inside your classroom. What are they getting themselves into at this moment?
And then you walk in.
They have started their routines. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. They are even doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing. In fact, they don't seem to even notice you are gone.
And that's when you realize that the Magic Moment has happened in your class....and it is beautiful.
My class this year is the most energetic class I have ever had. They are physically active. At any given point, I can guarantee you that someone is: doing the "Worm" or contorting themselves into some yoga pose that would make even the most dedicated yogi jealous. They are also chatty. And curious. And intense. And young. And rambunctious. And silly.
When I walked in, they had finished their morning routine and had gathered in a community circle. They had already chosen "Happy Wednesday" in ASL as their morning greeting, decided who was going to go first and even made room for me in the circle for when I walked in.
After 5 seconds of confusion followed by 30 seconds of pride I felt...sheepish. Why have I ever doubted this group? Why was I surprised that they would have their Magic Moment so early in the year? Was it because I had bought into all the stereotypes about a class full of active boys? Did I allow their flailing arms and farting jokes to blind me from seeing their creative independent spirits?
I still need a lot of reflection time to process this but I know that I had a Magic Moment too. And I will now see my class in a different more magical light...even if that light shines on someone doing the "Worm" or bouncing up and down.
My heart is definitely a nerdy heart because I couldn't help but get giddy at this challenge! Goal setting? Check! A specific period of time to meet that goal? Check! Group support by the most encouraging group of professionals out there (I mean teachers and no I am not biased...)? Check! Public shaming (I mean, accountability) to keep me focused? Check!
So...what the heck am I talking about? NerdLution (although I secretly call it NerdOlution in my head)! NerdLution is a (dare I say it?) movement where you pick a resolution and work at it for 50 days. Oh, and you blog and tweet about it - #NerdLution - to keep everyone motivated. You can read all about how it started on Franki and Mary Lee's blog - or on Colby Sharp's blog or a zillion other blogs I tend to stalk. The point is, a lot of amazing teacher-people are doing this and the support will be inspiring, motivating and probably hilarious!
- Write for 30 minutes every day. Every. Day. Even on days I claim I have no time...I really do. I want to balance between personal writing and professional writing but that may be a Round Two decision. Right now, I just need to write!
- Move for 30 minutes every day. I might go the gym, walk, take a dance class, whatever, as long as I am moving and exercising!
- Read (personal reading) for 30 minutes every day. I can read a lot of professional reading but I always short change myself when it comes to my personal reading...I think it's because as a teacher, my professional reading is both fascinating and quite personal. But I do miss my historical mysteries!
Alright, so I have said it! I am in! Yes, I know that I am a couple of days late. The old me would have just waited for Round 2. But the new NerdLution-inspired me is starting right now!
I know I wrote about controlling students in my last post, but this topic is still nagging at me...and probably will continue to do so in our current educational climate. But I don't want to just write about how we need to release control a little bit. I want to think about how we balance between scaffolding the learning for our students and stifling their voice.
In my first couple of years as a teacher, I never stifled students. They had free reign about topics, how to present their findings, which strategies to use and more. I also didn't scaffold or support them in any helpful way. I was brought up in the half free-market/half hippie school of thought when it came to teaching. Allow students lots of authentic options, surround them with great work and they will pick up reading and writing and everything else. Would you be shocked if I told you that some students struggled to learn what I thought they should? That they didn't read Patricia Maclachlan and mysteriously start spouting off poetic lines of prose? That they didn't all figure out word problems all on their own?
So, yes...I needed to reign in my teaching a bit...clearly a free market / hippie chic approach wasn't bringing me the results I wanted. My students made choices, alright, but they rarely moved past their choices. So I started to figure out how I could support my students so they could step out of their comfort zones and explore new territories. Sometimes that meant I asked them to try something out or I modeled several times or gave them diverse examples of student work. The point is, I chose my students over my former hard line stance on teaching.
And then I left teaching for a few years to work in research and policy. Which, of course, led me running back with open arms to the classroom, begging to be taken in.
That's when I realized that the free market days were over. Completely. Instead, there was over regulation and a police state. Tests were insanely important. And there lots of them. And they were terribly written. And they really, really mattered to the school community and everyone else in America. So, based on the false premise that these tests were "important", a whole industry was created to make these tests, practice for these tests (at school and at home) and even cheer out students on for these tests.
Hmmmm...what was this teacher to do?
Succumb to the "reality" of modern day teaching in America? Turn into a robotic slave and just follow orders? Or the opposite? Rebel completely and refuse to do anything that comes from "up above"...even if I may think it might be interesting? Just dig in my heels and get ready for the Alamo?
How about turn back to the hippie chic and zen out? Forget all the side issues in my periphery and focus on my students. Focus on them as human beings. And then focus on them as students. Figure out what each of them want and need and work for them. I may not know what kind of teaching I do anymore but at least I know who I am doing it for.
It doesn't matter how long I have been working with students. Every year, I continue to be more and more amazed with the strength, resilience and power that my little ones possess. My childhood was an easy one and thus I used to think that childhood itself was an easy phase of life. I think back to those careless days where I had not a worry in the world and grown-ups took care of everything I needed.
Life is not like that for many children, however, including many many students I have had over the years. Not only do they face extremely difficult obstacles - the kinds that would make most adults crumble - but they have NO control over their fate. They can't force their mom out of depression and make her take them to school - or just walk to school themselves. They can't force a deadbeat dad to show up for even one birthday. They can't make a dead parent come back to life. They can't grant themselves legal immigration status. They can't make a parent stop traveling for work and missing all their important milestones. They can't control the vast health issues they face that prevent them for truly being careless. They can't force a parent to stop drinking or taking drugs. And most of all, they can't just pick up and move away from the bad situation they are in. And yet, they show up in our classrooms with the biggest smile they can muster that morning, and manage to get through an entire day despite circumstances that would have me running away from everything I know.
They are amazing. Remarkable. Strong. Hilarious. Creative. Children. And yet, a couple of seconds after they enter the classroom, we often forget that and only see the distracting behaviors they are exhibiting. They won't stop talking. They seem unmotivated. They won't sit still. We have 20 something other students. We can't treat them differently than everyone else. Life is tough and we have to prepare them. We have a million answers for why we must keep marching on. And a million questions regarding how to make things better for our students.
This is something I am going to continue to ponder this year. But as I do, I am going to keep in the front of my mind that the students sitting right in front of me are my true heroes...even when they are tapping a pencil as they bounce around the classroom and distract everyone else.
One of my pet peeves in education - as my friends and colleagues have probably tired of hearing - is that people often forget that children are human beings. In fact, this exists outside the field of education as well. I have seen parents - very loving parents - mock their child's stress over completing homework on nights she had soccer practice and saying things like, "Imagine being stressed over homework. I wish I still had that same kind of stress." Of course, minutes later, the mother started telling us about how stressed she was over getting all the brownies done for the bake sale while meeting a work deadline. The mother couldn't even see that she and her daughter were feeling the exact same feelings. Kids are people too.
This point is pretty basic to me. I know how I feel when I've had a late start to my morning, when I've had a fight with my husband, or when I am overwhelmed with work. I know this makes me edgy, a little snippy and overly sensitive so I understand that my students will feel the same way also. I work hard to find the underlying cause of their eye-roll, their extreme silliness (accompanied by somersault on the rug during read-aloud) or their "random" tears. And I realize that there will be many occasions when I will never figure out why they are acting in a less than positive way. But I will give them extra love anyways.
Before you roll your eyes at me and think that I am writing a self-congratulatory post, let me get to the point of this piece. I am really good at reading children and understanding when they have rough days. I am not so good at doing this for other teachers in my building. When a kid gets overly chatty during a classroom discussion, I patiently talk to them after class. When a teacher does this at a staff meeting, I get annoyed and sigh. When a kid seems kind of grouchy, I try to figure out what is going on in his or her life. When a teacher does this, I wonder why they stay in a profession they seem to hate.
I know, I know! I. Am. A. Hypocrite. What's worse is that I pride myself on being a sensitive teacher, a nurturer, a giver. And yet, I can't do it with my colleagues. Why is that? Do I expect adults to "behave" better? Do I expect them to always be positive and mature? Do I expect teachers to keep their personal lives hidden and wear a constant smile? In essence, have I forgotten that teachers are human also?
Is that teacher who has been angry with her students all year going through a divorce? Is the one grading papers at a staff meeting doing his best to not explode while listening to professional development he thinks is useless? Is the teacher rolling her eyes at her colleague's amazing student work just envious and overwhelmed because she doesn't think she can ever do that? These are the questions I should be asking instead of automatically dismissing them as bad teachers.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am still going to be a bit judgmental here. After all, the actions of these teachers affect a whole crew of little impressionable people. Every. Single. Day. But is my negative attitude helping? No. And if I really care about their students, then I need to start by helping that teacher. How? That is tonight's question for me to ponder. Maybe through a coffee date, an offer to show someone how to use the new grading software or just listening...maybe through a whole lot more. I don't really have any answers yet...but I am glad that I have started thinking about this.
Today was the first day of school. And no matter how many first days I have, I am never quite prepared for it. Ever. I am not prepared for how nervous I will feel. Or how sleepless the night before will be. Or how frazzled I will feel in the morning. Or how exhausted I will feel in the afternoon. However, I am always prepared for the fact that I will miss the previous class. Tremendously.
Today was no different. I watched my former students walk to their new classes down the hall, stopping for hugs along the way and my heart silently screamed, "Come back! I've learned so much! We can have so much fun together!" But my mouth just smiled and whispered, "You're going to love fourth grade!"
And then arrived the brand new sparkly third graders! Shiny. Almost a little too shiny. Fresh-faced. Why weren't they a little dirty and mussed up? Eager and chatty and full of life! They are not last year's kids. Nor should they try to be - no matter how much I miss those now fourth grade kids at this moment. They need to keep being themselves, their marvelous little selves.
I will eventually get with the program. A shared comment about a favorite book, a girl eager to share her math strategy, a boy taking his writer's notebook out to recess...soon I will be smitten. And I will come up with nicknames for them. And they will learn all about my family. And we will feel as if we have always been together. I know this is coming and this is what keeps me going in that first month when I miss those deep relationships with last year's class.
Teaching is a funny thing. In business, you take your time and build relationships so you can have clients for life. Remember when Gap started Gap Kids and Baby Gap? For life. And that's just for t-shirts and jeans. Yet here we are with teaching, with students, with human relationships and we only get 9 short months. Broken up by holidays. We build a community, a family, and we learn and share and care together. And right when we think we have hit that incredible point in the year...yup, summer break and a whole new group of kids.
But we keep coming back. Perhaps it's an addiction we have to developing and building relationships with amazing young minds. Or maybe it's because we have found the eternal fountain of youth - a chance to remain young year after year. I don't know the answer but it's something I will be mulling over this year...as I get to know the 20 fabulous little people that meandered and bolted and traipsed through the door today.
After spending a few days at the VSTE conference, my head still feels like it's going to explode from all the information that's now in there. Scratch that. It's not the information I learned, it's all the questions racing through my head that are giving me the most delightful headaches ever. As Jennifer Orr, an incredible colleague, friend and mentor pointed out, the most learning happened outside of the official sessions, during quiet (and loud) conversations. Just teachers talking to teachers. Making sense of life and learning. The way it should be. I have a lot more to process about VSTE later...
However, there is a throbbing pain that isn't coming from the joys of creative strategies, deep questions or even a cool new trick. No. Unfortunately, this pain is a result of the number of times I heard references to "controlling" our students. Now this might sound a bit sadistic and I think this crowd was a bit too sophisticated to actually say "controlling" our students. But the need to dominate kids came out through other questions and comments:
- I have a great new way to lock this app so kids can't get to the other apps on the iPad.
- How do I make sure the kids do exactly what I (my emphasis) want them to do?
- This way, the students won't try to do something else and will follow directions.
- If you use this outline strategy, there is no way that a student can make a mistake or go off topic.
- No, the students don't make up their own questions, I make up all the questions and they just answer them.
How are we using this type of language in our day and age? Why do we still feel the need to dictate to our students what to do? What are we afraid of them doing? We may say that we're afraid they are going to waste time, to go on the "wrong app" (because as adults, we would never ever get distracted now, would we?), or fall behind. But I think at the end of the day, we are just scared that they will ask us questions that we can't answer. We are afraid of not knowing.
Assuming this theory is true, WHAT THE HECK ARE WE AFRAID OF? Don't we want our students to be smarter than us? Don't we want them to inspire us and lead us into the future? Don't we want them to figure out the shortcuts and most efficient ways, the new tricks and strategies, the more abstract ways of thinking that we hadn't even pondered yet?
Is it scary for them to lead us into a new line of thinking? Is it scary when they surprise us with all their background knowledge? Is it scary when they troubleshoot our devices without us even realizing there was something wrong? In my humble opinion, the answer is NO! It's amazing and it's exactly the direction in which we should be nurturing them towards.
We need to remember to let go of control. Let our students create. Let them think. Let them make good choices. Let them make bad choices. Just let them be.