Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Learning from Co-Teaching

For the majority of the fifteen years I've taught at my wonderful school I have been lucky enough to spend at least part of my day co-teaching. During that time I've co-taught with at least a dozen different people (some years I co-taught with more than one person at different points of the day). I have learned from all of them.

This year my administration partnered me up with someone new. She's not new to our school but I have never co-taught with her. She is due to have a baby any day now and today should be her last day for this year. Unfortunately I had to be out of school today. I'm sorry to have missed the last day we had as a team, at least for this year.

She has a lovely long-term substitute with whom I will work for the rest of the year. That will be fine. I will learn from her and we'll have a great time with the kiddos.

But I'm sad to lose my current partner. She has more experience with first graders than I do and has a wealth of wonderful ideas.

Even more, though, I will miss her calm, quiet nature. I listen to hear talk to the students and am reminded of how I want to sound. I watch her facial expressions and body language and try to mimic it. She has a gentle way with children that I envy.

I wish her a wonderful maternity leave with her precious baby. I truly do. At the same time, I hope I will have another opportunity to try and soak up the way she interactions with children and continue to learn how to do a better job of it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Banning Fluorescents

Thanks to the inspiration of some fabulous colleagues in my building I have been slowly moving toward never turning on my overhead lights. A few years ago I bought a couple of small, table lamps from Ikea for cheap.

They didn't light up the room but did add some nice ambiance. The silver lamp up front in this picture was passed on by a colleague when she decided it wasn't working the way she wanted in her classroom. It gives off some great light.

This year I decided to buy a floor lamp like many teachers in my building and see how that works. When I went to get one they were on sale so I bought two. Of course.

I've got one on each side of my room and they do a pretty good job, even this time of year with our dark, dreary days.

This weekend we put up the Christmas decorations at our house and I decided to bring some lights to school. They were bought post-Christmas one year because I couldn't pass up the discount but they have never been used. (We have lots of white lights because we got married in late December and decorated the reception hall with Christmas trees as well as lights on the stairwells and bushes outside.) These lights made my class ooh and aah today when I plugged them in.

There are still two boxes at home and I think I'll bring them in to put up on the other side of the room. The inspiration for this came from another wonderful teacher whose white lights I see as I pass her room regularly.

Now our lighting seems complete.

We almost never have all of our overhead lights on. Typically I flip one of our two switches but at times we don't have either on. Hopefully we can do that even more often. Our room feels so much cozier, calmer, and more welcoming this way.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Every week everyone in our school district (and that's a lot of us) gets an email newsletter with various information. It includes several sections, including About Our People (a place to highlight employees' accomplishments), Call for Coaches, and a list of employees or former employees who have died. I skim through most sections every week. I do skip the coaches one as it doesn't interest me in any way.

This week's newsletter caught my attention in a new way.

In the midst of all this fairly mundane information is the quick fact that sexual harassment is prohibited in my school district. Did we need to state that in our weekly newsletter? Is this a new policy?

Now I'm wondering if other things I assumed were prohibited might be perfectly acceptable...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

So Many Great Moments

As I thought about what I wanted to post on Facebook tonight for my "Great school moment" from today I realized there were so many I couldn't possibly condense it enough for an update there. Instead, it becomes a blog post here.

First thing this morning a student came up to me asking about a coat I had promised him. A colleague offered her son's old coat to this little boy who doesn't have a winter coat. I grabbed the coat and was reminded by this fabulous colleague to tell my little guy that the coat is reversible (orange on one side and camouflage on the other). I demonstrated this for my student and his face lit up. Not two minutes later he comes up to me, hugging his coat, and said, "My coat is so soft." On the way out to recess later he stopped me to say, "I really like my new coat." I introduced him to the teacher who had provided the coat and he was excited to meet her (although that would not have been obvious to anyone watching - but I swear it's true).

The next great moment was actually many moments. As a first grade team we did special Thanksgiving rotations today. Two classes team up to do something fun and the kids rotate through the different rooms. A teammate and I had the kids making butter (you put heavy whipping cream in a container and shake it until it thickens into butter - it should only be done if you have many kids to help). The whole process was pretty exciting to the kids, but when we opened the container and showed them the butter the gasps and exclamations were astounding. (This is from the 3rd and final group when I got with it enough to record their reactions.)

In the short time we had after lunch before our next set of rotations a fifth grader came to read to us. She had earned the chance to do something special and picked reading to a younger class. She introduced herself, read the book, showed the pictures, and answered questions. She was poised, patient, and just fabulous with the kids. It also seems that when she returned to class she was really excited about what she done. A win-win for sure.

There were so many other little moments, that on plenty of days would have been my focus. Today was just so fabulous I can barely begin to recount it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Introducing David

As I may have mentioned (ad nauseum to those who see me daily) I have a truly delightful class this year. My kids are interesting and have great personalities. They aren't vanilla ice cream kiddos, by which I mean kids who just sit quietly all the time and follow every direction. We have snags and challenges just nothing major.

One little guy sort of shows it all about our class. I'm going to call him David after the main character in David Shannon's books. We spend a lot of time being driven crazy by him but adoring him all the same.

His kindergarten teacher, in the first week of school, asked me if I'd seen his grouchy face. She said I would love it. I do. He gets upset and huffs and puffs, stamps around, and scrunches up his face. His two favorite phrases are "That's not fair!" and "Not again!"

Another teacher works one-on-one with David everyday for half an hour and she has the greatest stories to tell about their time together. She is an astounding teacher and has infinite patience with him. I'm amazed by it. Recently she picked him up one morning and he was cranky. She did everything she could to build him up and keep him going.

He got really stubborn and told her that he wasn't going to read the S's at the end of words (something they had been working on). He read an entire book without the S's. If he messed up and read the word correctly he would go back, reread, and leave it off. He worked harder to read the book incorrectly than he would have done if he had read it accurately.

He, like the rest of the class, challenges me, keeps me on my toes, and keeps me smiling. Thank goodness for them all.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Testing Us All

Administering a standardized test to first graders is as painful as it sounds. On Wednesday we did a little bit of prep so they had some idea of what to expect and what to do. Thursday morning was the main event.

I set my kiddos up all around the room to give them each enough space. Passed out the test books and freshly sharpened pencils. Read the directions and went through the sample questions. So far, so (mostly) good.

The test is non-verbal and timed. Both positive things for first graders. My role was to make sure students didn't skip questions and that they were quiet throughout. Both were a challenge.

One little friend (about whom I already have so many stories) talked to himself throughout the entire 30 minutes (shockingly he was the only one who didn't finish all the questions). I mostly tried to keep him at a whisper but did have to crack down when he actually called out to the girl closest to him. He can't not talk to save his life. I believe if he were standing behind a lion he would still not be able to be silent. (This lion has no sense of smell, obviously, or the talking thing would be irrelevant.)

When kiddos finished we checked to be sure they had an answer for every question and then gave them their book box, with a reminder to remain silent. First graders with boxes full of Mo Willems, Froggy, and Jan Thomas books can't be silent. No matter how hard they try. 

I worry about what all this testing is doing to our children. I genuinely have concerns about that. But right now, I'm much more worried about what it's doing to the teachers. My whole team was wiped out after administering a half hour test. It is absurd.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Begging for Money

Watching one of my squirmiest little guys sit in our 'meeting manager' chair (we only have the one so that's how we know who gets to use it each day - if you're the meeting manager it's your day with the chair) has me here asking for money. Sigh.

(This is not one of my little friends - just a buddy grabbed in the library one morning in order to get a picture with the chair when it was brand new.)

These chairs are amazing. They rock just enough for my squirmy kids to move a little without really distracting them. Sitting in this chair actually seems to help many of my kiddos focus more. The others, the ones who can focus without the chair, also love to sit in it. It's just fun for them. I don't blame them. I kind of want one in my size.

Today's meeting manager used the chair throughout most of the day. As he grabbed his backpack to go home he said, "I'm going to miss that chair."

If you're looking for a place to spend a few bucks and want to help out some squirmy first graders, check out our DonorsChoose project for a few more of these fabulous chairs. And thanks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Too many kiddos can really strain a school. It means overcrowded hallways, teachers working one-on-one with kids in every nook and cranny, lunch starting at 10:15 am and lasting past 1:00 pm, long waits for bathrooms (for students and teachers), and trailers taking over every flat spot of land. Special education and ESOL teachers, literacy and math coaches, and other specialists share offices in trailers or storage closets.  That's been our reality for a number of years.

This year a new school opened. Sixteen of our darlings headed over to that brand new school. About two hundred others were redistricted to another school nearby. Losing sixteen wouldn't be noticeable. Losing two hundred definitely is.

We expected to notice a difference this year. Quieter hallways, shorter waits for a bathroom, less chaos with fewer classes on the playground - that sort of thing. That has all come true.

We've also found some other, less obvious, but significant changes. The two hundred students who no longer attend our school all live in one apartment complex. It's not a great place to live in many ways. There are adults, mostly male, standing around outside at all hours, smoking, drinking. Some are waiting/hoping for day labor work. Others are just there. A ton of kids live there but are rarely seen. Parents don't let them play outside because they don't believe it is safe. It is right on an access road for a very busy road, but I would guess that's not the main concern. Many apartments hold multiple families. These students were, in many ways, our neediest students. 

Now that they are gone we are finding a different atmosphere in our building, our Parent Center and classrooms.

Parents who come in still have questions and need help. We still provide clothes, shoes, and winter coats to students. We still translate for parents at meetings and parent coffees. So much has not changed. 

At the same time, so much has. I wrote about this before without really understanding what I was seeing and thinking. Parent-teacher conferences really made it hit home for me. I had two no-shows out of fifteen students. That's an astoundingly great rate of participation for our families. One of my two no-shows is a little boy who lives in that same apartment complex. His brother is a fifth grader (our last grade) so they had the option to remain here this year. Other teachers were saying they've never had such high attendance rates at parent-teacher conferences. 

Many of our students are still living in poverty. Many are still learning English. Yet they seem to come from families with a better skill set for school and society.

Many of us have been discussing these changes, in hushed voices tinged with shame. We feel guilty because our lives seem to be easier now, our school calmer. But we worry. How are those kiddos doing? The school they attend now has no Parent Center, no parent liaisons to translate or coordinate with families. They cannot walk to their new school. Are they getting any support?

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I hate it when I realize that I'm getting frustrated with my students because I'm sending them mixed messages.

During guided reading groups I tend to get really irritated when students are struggling with a word and keep looking at me rather than at the word. On a good day I can remind them once before I get too annoyed. But it keeps happening and I keep telling them they need to look at the word in order to read it.

On Friday it hit me that one of the life skills we work really hard on all the time is making eye contact. I greet them at the door each morning and keep telling them good morning until they are making eye contact as we speak. We greet each other during morning meeting and work hard on our eye contact. When I conference with students about their reading or writing I work on eye contact as we talk. It tends to be difficult for many young kids to make eye contact regularly so it is something we practice often.

Then they sit down to read with me and I chastise them for making eye contact. Sigh.

This week I will work on encouraging them to look at the word they are struggling to read without frustration and without suggesting that looking at me is a bad thing to do.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


I wrote previously about my naivete in high school. I can remember talking to my best friend when we were in college and being shocked to find out so many of our classmates were having sex and drinking during high school. (How she was so aware and I was so clueless is astounding.)

Even twenty years later I remain pretty darn naive. I am aware of some horrible things in my students' lives over my fifteen years of teaching. My first year I had a boy whose mother had abandoned the family. Another student's mother had died not long after the girl's baby brother was born and the father was believed to be sexually abusing the daughters so the children were all removed from his custody. One girl's mother tried to commit suicide. One boy had a baby brother die. Another girl was raped multiple times by a family friend living with them temporarily. At least two girls had lost their fathers during their elementary school years. A couple of students were being raised by family members because their mothers were in mental institutions. Plenty of students fled their home countries out of danger to their families.

All of these things were explicitly told to me. They may have been shared by the families or read in a family history done by our school social worker or told to me by the child's previous teacher. In some way I was given notice of these traumas.

How many other traumas have I missed because I am too naive to believe these things happen? Have I had students who were abused and I missed the signs? Were there ones suffering from depression or other mental health challenges?

Children are amazingly strong and resilient. They overcome things that make me want to curl up and hide under the covers for days. I hope that I have given them the love, support, and safety they all need and deserve even if I was unaware of turmoil in their outside-of-school lives.

But the more I think about this the more I wonder. I'm familiar with statistics on abuse and mental health disorders. I know that some of our students face these problems. I know that some of the strangers I pass do as well. Which ones? Why them? How can we know? Only then can we do anything to help.

I don't want to become cynical instead of naive. Somewhere there must be a middle ground that allows me to carefully watch for concerns or signs of trouble while still believing in the inherent goodness of people...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Fair Warning: Not about Education At All

This post is much more personal, political, and religious than I tend to be here. Feel free to skip it.

I don't know how the elections will play out on Tuesday and I don't know if specific comments will impact the chances of those who made them, but I have been so bothered by them I finally had to do something. When I am struggling in this way, writing is my solution.

As a woman, as a Christian (mostly, at least), and as a rape survivor I am shocked by comments made by some politicians lately. Religion plays in here because that seems to be at the root of these men's reasoning about rape and abortion. Typically my responses to media reports about rape are not impacted by my religious/faith/spiritual beliefs.

If these men had stated that they did not support abortion in the case of rape because they believe that murdering a fetus is a crime and one crime in response to another is not acceptable, I would not agree but I would accept their reasoning. Based on their Christian values (that I am assuming are in play) that would be logical.

My religion is also a factor, and a critical one in my response to these statements, because of my specific story. It's not a story I tell often. But I feel a need to tell it now.

I was sixteen years old and a youth delegate to my denomination's annual state conference. I traveled with one of our pastors and another respected member of our church to the conference. The youth delegates stayed in the dorms on the campus where the conference was held.

The conference lasted several days. There were a lot of fabulous activities for the youth delegates and we participated in the general conference sessions as well. Our time was pretty well structured and planned for the entire time. I vaguely remember meeting some wonderful teens from across the state. One of my favorite hymns I learned at that conference.

One of the other youth delegates was a recent high school graduate who, according to what he told people, wanted to become a minister. He was two years older than I and we spent a lot of time together. The last night of the conference he snuck down to my dorm room, something I probably thought was flattering and fun at the time. He tried to convince me to have sex with him and when I refused he raped me. 

My memories are blurred by time and pain but I remember crying and saying no, no, no again and again. I was terrified of what was happening but also afraid of getting in trouble because he was there in the first place. I told no one. 

The next morning, at the large, closing ceremonies, he came to see me as though everything was normal. He even made a comment along the lines of, "That wasn't so bad, was it?" 

I was at a church conference. He was a youth delegate who was going to become a minister. How could that have been rape? For two years I convinced myself it wasn't. I knew I was no longer a virgin, I wasn't that naive. I also spent a tense few weeks terrified of being pregnant. I got lucky there. I never had to make the decision about whether or not to abort a child conceived through rape.

More than two years later a chance question prompted me to defend my sexual history and choices (limited though they were) and confront the reality of what had happened. I was lucky enough to have someone in my life who forced me to get counseling and who supported me through months of pain, nightmares, and fear. 

The shame I still feel more than twenty years later is surprisingly strong. I was naive and had no idea how to handle such a situation. I believed in the goodness of others and found it hard to imagine anyone would do such a thing, much less a youth delegate to a church conference.

If you are not one of the 1 in 6 women to be raped in their lifetime it can be hard to truly understand the long-lasting trauma involved. For anyone to suggest that rape could be, in any way, intended by God is horrifying.

If you made it this far, please remember that this was my way of dealing with my frustration over these comments. I am not looking for sympathy. I am much stronger at 39 than I was at 16. In my perception rape is seen as less shameful now than it was twenty years ago. Mostly I think that is a good thing. Mostly I think that helps us move forward, in spite of comments like these made by certain politicians.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Number? Letter? Hard to Say

We do our afternoon dismissal online. Personally, I love it. It's silent so it doesn't disrupt anything we might be doing (usually me reading poetry to the kids) and it's in print so I can look back if I'm not sure a bus has or hasn't been called.

As I do occasionally have to be out of the classroom I have two students who go to one of our computers and  tell us when any new group is dismissed. My two little guys do a great job at this. At first I had dismissal open on my computer too, just to check. They've got it down now.

There is one small snag. Right there, under the '3:15 WALKERS' is the bit that throws them each day.

Every day they call out "Buses 2 and 7 are dismissed!" (or sometimes "Buses 5 and 7" depending on their perspective). Next week we're going to have to look at this carefully. It turns out we have a Bus S. I didn't know that. Not surprisingly my kiddos clearly don't know that.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Digital Halloween Costumes

We missed Monday and Tuesday of this week due to Sandy. It was probably a wise decision as plenty of folks (and schools) lost power. It did mean that our first day of school this week was Halloween. Surprisingly none of my first graders showed up at school in costume. I was somewhat disappointed.

Instead we created our own costumes, digitally at least. I put their faces into Pixie and they drew their favorite book character's body with their head. I modeled this with The Pigeon, which may have led to so many other Pigeons in my class. Or, they might just like The Pigeon that much.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about characters in books we read and books we write so it was fun to use those characters in a new way.

I was especially impressed with the kiddos who added details around their face rather than just below it.

As an aside, one of the Pete the Cats looks an awful lot like the dinosaurs that child draws during writing workshop each day...

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Benefits of Labels

Quick caveat: I don't feel a great urge to label students. I'm lucky to work at a school where the support students receive is based on their need, not their labels. It does matter when it comes to accommodations for standardized testing and it might matter more when kids get to middle and high school however. (I don't know enough beyond elementary to say.)

As a first grade teacher I have worked with students with special education labels every year. Those little darlings all had been identified in preschool. It's easy then to keep that label and support those students and give them those accommodations.

A student who gets to kindergarten or first grade without identified learning disabilities has a lot more trouble getting that label. I completely understand that we do not want to willy-nilly slap labels on students. I truly do.

That said, the testing that is done in the process of identifying learning disabilities gives so much information about how a child learns. It gives insight into visual or auditory processing difficulties for example. Unfortunately when a young child is up for discussion, the most frequent response is, "They are so young. Let's give them more time."

I don't really want the label. I want the testing. I want to understand what is keeping a student from learning the way all their peers are doing. But if you are testing a lot of students and not finding labels that is questioned. So we don't test. We don't learn. We don't understand. We don't help as well as we could.

I have reread this numerous times tonight trying to ensure my language actually conveys my thinking. I hope it does. I'm sure there are places here where the language I have used illuminates biases I have. If you notice any, please point them out to me. We are often blind to our biases and could use help from others identifying them.