Monday, August 29, 2011

Today and Tomorrow

Today was the first day back for teachers. That's usually one of my favorite days of the year. Everyone is back, chatting about their summer activities, tired maybe but mostly excited about the year. Plus, I've usually already spent a few days getting my room ready so I don't feel really stressed about the year yet.

Today didn't go that way this year. For a variety of reasons today was more stressful than fun. One part was that my oldest daughter was feeling just as stressful as I was.

Today I spent a bunch of time talking to her about focusing on the positives. About how she has more control over her emotional state than she realizes. About how she can make things work or not work depending on how she goes into it.

Today I forgot all that for myself. I got caught up in all my stress, frustration, and anxiety.

Tomorrow I will remember what I told her. Tomorrow will be better.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It Takes a Village...

We've all heard the saying and I have to admit to buying into it wholeheartedly. I'm sure there are parents out there who can care for, teach, and end up with perfectly wonderful children all on their own. My husband and I are not those people.

Fortunately we have a village to end all villages. Both sets of grandparents live reasonably close (I'm actually jealous of my children because of how much time they get to spend with their grandparents.) My husband's siblings and their kids all live fairly close as well. My sister, while she lives quite a distance from us (the opposite coast in fact) is very connected to our girls including an annual trip the four of us take.

Plus we have friends who have known our girls for all or most of their lives and are wonderful to them. They read to them, truly talk with them, and are just, basically, another villager.

The full-time childcare providers they have been to over the years have been like another parent. They have loved, taught, and played with them. Plus, they've been an immense help to us as we've learned about life with little ones.

The teachers have also been fantastic. I don't even know where to start to sing their praises.

Our neighbors are wonderful. We feel so safe with our girls playing outside knowing that everyone is keeping an eye on all the kids.

We've had a handful of babysitters over the years, all of whom have gone above and beyond for our children.

I've been thinking about this for several days and my thoughts have gone in a few directions. First, how very lucky we are. Many parents don't have half this level of support and I am grateful beyond measure for all of these people. Secondly, our girls are so lucky as well. Having so many adults who love and care for them is a treasure. Finally, I wish all kids and parents had a village like this. What a difference that could make in the lives of so many families.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I spent my day today in a training for team leaders for our cluster (our school district is so large we are broken into eight clusters). On the whole there was a lot of good information and I didn't feel like my time was wasted. To be honest, I had expected to feel that way so I was pleasantly surprised.

By the end, however, I walked away pretty peeved. Today's training included teachers from all the schools in our cluster, elementary, middle, and high schools. In many ways I think we are expected to be doing many of the same things.

When I was last team leader, many years ago now, it was a pretty basic role, mostly a connection between the team and the administration. I don't think that's what it is now. I think team leaders are expected to truly lead their teams, to plan meetings, to collaborate with the administration, reading and math coaches, counselors, parent liaisons, and anyone else who might need to work with the team, and to attend other meetings. In other words I think it is a much more demanding job than it was in the past.

I don't actually think that's a bad thing. I think there is a lot of potential in that.

Middle and high school team leaders, typically called department heads, have extra time and/or money to make the job easier. Elementary team leaders do not. We are expected to do our regular full-time job just like everyone else and the team leader responsibilities on top of that. And that is why I'm peeved.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Recent Boat Trip

Every year, for six years now, my fabulous, amazing, brilliant sister* and I take my girls on a trip, just the four of us. This year my oldest daughter requested an ocean theme for our trip. We spent a couple of days in Norfolk, VA, taking a boat tour of the Naval base and exploring the Nauticus Museum. We spent one day hiking around Assateague Island and taking an astounding boat tour from Chincoteague Island. The boat tour was the major highlight.

Captain Barry runs boat tours from the island and he has a variety of options. He was booked pretty full but had a space for us one evening from 6:30-8:30. He offered to tailor the tour to my daughters rather than his traditional sunset tour.

First of all, he knows just about everything about the island. More importantly, however, he is fantastic with kids. The first big thing we did was to motor over to a shoal (I have no idea if that is the best term but I don't have a better one). It was near high tide so the shoal was quite small and completely covered with shells. He gave each girl a ziploc bag and sent them off to collect shells. Then he pulled up a trap he keeps there, filled up a shallow bucket with water, and dumped a bunch of tiny fish into it. The girls were invited to touch the fish and then to scoop them up in their hands, hold them over the edge of the boat, and say, "Jump, jump, jump!" The fish would wiggle or jump right out of their hands and back into the water. They loved it!

We made a quick stop in the grasses nearby. Captain Barry plucked up grasses and had the girls pass them on to the adults on the boat. He showed us the salt on the grasses and encouraged us to taste it. Then he pulled off some shells and told us about the snails.

Next we headed over to a new island. It's only been there for about four years. At high tide it wasn't too big but it was wonderful. We stood on one small stretch and had the waves breaking over our legs, from the bay on one side and the ocean on the other. Amazing. My girls had a blast running around in the waves, splashing and laughing.

The last major stop was a crab trap Captain Barry keeps. He let my oldest daughter hook the trap and pull it in. He dumped the four crabs into the bucket and let the girls check them out. When they had had enough he let them pick up the bucket and dump them back into the water.

I wrote this for two reasons.

1. To share the news about Captain Barry. If you happen to be near Chincoteague make some time for one of his tours, even if you don't have kids with you. I fully intend to go back next summer and take a half day tour with him.

2. This experience was so wonderful for my daughters. I wish my students had these sorts of experiences. We can take them on field trips, and we do, but that is so limited. My girls learned more from this two hours than they could in two weeks of school. That's not a knock against their teachers by any stretch, simply a limitation on what is possible in school.

*She's the only sister (and sibling) I've got so I can wax as enthusiastic as I want. Plus, she takes several days each year to take a special trip with me and my girls. How many siblings would do that?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Children are Hurting

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has recently released their 2011 Kids Count Data Book. I was shocked by some of the numbers as I began reading the results of this study.
  • The poverty level for a family of four is $22,350. I can't imagine that. Double that would be tough to live on in this area.
  • Across our country, 42% of children are living at 200% of the poverty level or below. So, that number I said would be tough to live at, almost half the kids in our country are there or even worse off.
  • The differences in financial situations for white and Asian-Americans versus African-Americans and Hispanics is staggering. The differences in unemployment and home ownership alone shocked me.
  • "At age four, children who live in very low income families are 18 months behind the developmental norm for their age, and by age 10, the gap is still present." I've long known the first few years of children's lives are critical but this still hurt to read.
I will give everything I've got for my students this year as will teachers across the country, but we've got to recognize the reality.

Children deserve better than this. Children should not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Children should feel certain that they have a place to live. Children deserve parents who can find jobs and feel secure.

It saddens me to think that our society places so little value on children that we allow this to continue.

I've barely scratched the surface of the study here. Check it out.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Google Docs Presentation

I presented early this week at a half-day institute my school district puts on each year. My topic was using google docs to ensure assessment drives instruction. I really had two main points to make about my use of google docs:
  1. it allows me to quickly and easily keep track of students' progress and group them for extra support or enrichment
  2. it allows me to share assessment information with co-teachers and them to share with me - we can keep anecdotal records together rather than separately
I presented twice and both went reasonably well. The first group was very small, but very interested and we were able to follow through on individual questions quite well. The second group was larger but, at least some of them, were pretty excited about the possibilities.

I created a page here with the basic information I presented.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

He Just Doesn't Understand

Running errands with my daughters today the Diane Rehm show was on the radio. She was interviewing Steven Brill, the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools. My gut impression is that Brill genuinely respects teachers. In spite of that, he drove me crazy during the interview, to the extent that I was slamming my hands on the steering wheel. My oldest daughter actually asked me, "Mommy, why don't you just turn off the radio?"

First of all, I have to admit to not having read the book. I have heard some great things about it and am adding it to my list of books to read. Also, we were making stops so my listening to the interview was briefly interrupted a few times (something that was probably for the best).

One of Brill's major arguments throughout the interview was clearly for merit pay (although I never heard him use those words). He frequently spoke about teachers being frustrated by the fact that no matter how hard they work they would make the same amount of money as anyone else who had been breathing for the same length of time. There are so many problems with that argument. One, the idea that teachers are only motivated by money or that their compensation is a competition. Two, that there is an available solution to this 'problem'. Research on merit pay has shown that it doesn't work. We have no good, meaningful way to judge teachers. Finally, "breathing for the same length of time?" Really? Those were his words.

With breaks for our errands I was surviving with only minimal damage to my steering wheel. As we arrived home Diane Rehm asked a question about why teachers are always blamed, what about the parents. (By the way, Rehm was not exempt from my frustration, her questions were often as irritating as Brill's answers.) Brill responded by saying that successful charters have proven that all kids can be taught. I nearly screamed and did slam my car door when we got out. If kids are in a charter school someone, most likely a parent, has put forth the effort to get them there. That leaves plenty of kids whose parents don't know how to do so or don't bother to. Sheesh.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

10 Picture Books I Can't Live Without

Cathy got me hooked on the idea of sharing picture books I adore. I have to admit to hedging it a bit and sharing some series and authors I love. I don't follow rules well.

First, the Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. I adore Mo and have for many years. When Elephant and Piggie first came out I was highly skeptical. They seemed, to me at least, to be too simple and silly. It didn't take long for me to change my mind. I love reading them and my first graders adore them, win-win! These books are wonderful for reading aloud, emergent readers to read on their own, and for inspiration for writing. You can't go wrong with any of them.

White is for Blueberry by George Shannon and illustrated by Laura Dronzek - I discovered this book when my youngest daughter randomly checked it out from the library. It's a very clever book, turning things on their side a bit. Each color is attributed to something surprising and then explained in a way that makes perfect sense. I love using this book early in the year because it pushes us all to look at things in a completely different way. It goes beautifully with our focus on kids' wonders.

Steve Jenkins' nonfiction books - Finding good nonfiction books is a challenge, in my mind. Many nonfiction books, especially for early readers, are formulaic and pretty dull. Steve Jenkins has created many amazing nonfiction books, mostly about animals. I keep some of these right by my chair throughout the year to pick up when we have a few extra minutes. My students love the books and I learn something new every time I read them.

Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco - Most of Patricia Polacco's books are a bit too challenging for first graders. They are also quite long which often means I don't use them. But, Emma Kate is awesome. It is a story of a girl and an elephant - one is an imaginary friend. One assumes it is the girl with an imaginary elephant friend. However, when you read more closely it is not certain. A friend and I have debated this and changed each others' minds more than once. It's fascinating.

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
- I love all of this man's books, but I'm singling out The Dot because it's the first one I read each year. September 15th is Dot Day so I have to get started on it quickly each year. Reynolds' message is always about believing in oneself and taking risks - messages kids should hear again and again.

Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt - Watt's book are hilarious. I read these more for me than for the kids. I think they are pretty sophisticated and a lot of it goes right over the kids' heads. But I love them. Scaredy Squirrel is a brilliant character and Watt plays around with the structure of a narrative and the structure of a book. For those reasons these books would be great fun with older kids.

City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon Muth - I was trying to avoid multiple books by the same author but I couldn't leave this one of the list. When it first came out I was thrilled. I love both this author and illustrator and couldn't wait to see what they did together. Then I read it and was disappointed. It just seemed a bit boring. Then, I read it to kids. That changed everything. I loved it. It's beautiful - both in text and pictures. Plus, it offers a wonderful way to talk about friendships, grief, and seasons.

South by Patrick McDonnell - I start the year off with wordless picture books. It gives us the chance to explore reading the illustrations which opens up many, many books (even with text) to my students. This year I also want to use these books with writing. South is a wonderful example. Many wordless pictures are actually very complex and sophisticated. This makes them challenging for first graders. South has a lot going on but is accessible to first graders.

When Mama Comes Home Tonight by Eileen Spinelli - Eileen Spinelli is another of my favorite authors. Her books are simply beautiful. This book speaks to me as a working mother. It talks about a child and working mother and how they spend their evening. Her prose flows and makes me smile.

Stephanie's Ponytail by Robert Munsch
- Munsch amuses me greatly. He writes for kids in a way that few others do. He is most famous for Love You Forever but it is my least favorite of his books. Stephanie's Ponytail is one of my favorites because it has a clear pattern, in the way that his books typically do, but it also has a really strong ending. Munsch sometimes struggles with endings (which I think are really hard). I also like Stephanie's Ponytail because the main character is a strong girl who does what she wants.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Brief Reflections on the March

It's been nearly a week now since the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C. I've been thinking a lot about it since then, but for a variety of reasons, haven't managed to write anything. I don't think I've sorted out my thoughts clearly enough yet.

That said, fortunately, others have done a fabulous job writing about the march. So, as I continue to mull my thoughts, here are a few others:

Jose Vilson is a math teacher in New York City and one of the speakers and organizers of the march. In fact his poem at the march was one of the highlights for me.

A few other attendees have managed to get their thoughts organized, quite well thankfully. Tom Hoffman and his wife came down from Providence, Rhode Island and I had the lucky opportunity to meet them briefly early in the day. Tom does an astounding job of synthesizing the day and looking toward the future. Apparently he and Michael Doyle spent most of the march together. Michael writes, and writes exceptionally well, about the idea that it's time to turn things over to the younger folks. Reading his post made me realize that the most inspiring speeches to me were not from the folks I had been excited to see but from the youngsters: Jose, John Kuhn, a superintendent from Texas best known for his letter to state politicians, and Matt Damon. Another blogger and friend in attendance on Saturday was Gary Stager. He has managed to post quite a bit about the march. He wrote about his frustration that so few teachers were there (a frustration I share to some extent), he posted Pedro Noguera's speech, quite a good one, and Diane Ravitch's remarks.

Tim pinpoints some valid concerns about the march and what happens next.

Teacher Tom analyzes some of Matt Damon's remarks and takes a look at the big picture, with resulting fear for our future. He is, as always, thoughtful and passionate.

Ira Socol very clearly explores the concerns many have with our current president's attitudes and actions towards education.

Finally Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Matt Damon's mother, wrote a concise letter to the Boston Globe that clearly states the same frustrations I have felt about media coverage of the event.