Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bridging to K

Twenty years ago I did my student teaching in kindergarten and second grade. Although the second grade experience was much more positive for me, I walked away convinced I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.
I didn't teach immediately after graduation, opting instead to play the harp on a cruise ship, work in a bookstore, and substitute teach (you have to do something between cruise ship contracts). When I was finally ready to begin my teaching career I ended up taking over a fifth grade classroom for the final quarter of the year. It was exceptionally challenging for a number of reasons, but I loved it. And I realized that by that age the kids could really have conversations with you, they could tie their own shoes, and they didn't wet their pants. I was sold on the upper grades and was lucky enough to get a position teaching fourth graders.
For the next decade I taught fourth and fifth graders. It was awesome. Then I felt like I was in a rut and I moved to first grade. I loved that too.
Now, after sixteen years and three grade levels I'm going back to my original plan. I will be teaching kindergartners in the fall.
I had not planned to work this summer (something that has never happened) because we're trying to sell our house and buy a new one. That seemed like it would be my full time job for now. Then I was at school yesterday and was asked to teach in our Bridge to K program for the next few weeks.
They were on the second day and one teacher had more than twenty little ones (she did have two instructional assistants). That's a bit much when we're talking about kids who've had no type of school experience.
So today I began my bridge to K along with these little darlings. It's a great experience for me and after only one day I'm feeling better equipped to greet my class on September 2nd. I'm by no means truly prepared, but I have a better sense of what to expect. The next few weeks will increase that along with my confidence (I hope).

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Teachers Have Power

I'm in Responsive Classroom training this week. I've been using many aspects of the program for years (thanks to awesome colleagues who knew way more than I did), but I've never actually taken the class.
I'my grateful for all that background knowledge as I think these days would be much more overwhelming without it. I'm still in a bit of cognitive overload.
This morning we began with teacher language. As Choice Words is one of my all time favorite books, teacher language is something on which I am constantly working. The thing that really struck me today, in our work and conversations, was how much power we have as teachers and how often our language plays a large role in that. We have the power to make or break days for kiddos. And really, not just days but weeks and months and more. The tone and words we use are critical in this. One of the important characteristics of teacher language, according to Responsive Classroom, is that it should show faith in children's abilities and potential. That's really big. What we say and how we say it should show faith in children's abilities and potential. It's not always easy to do.
Another bit of our day that got me thinking about the power we have as teachers was the introduction to responding to misbehavior. Our leader asked us to list all the reasons we speed. It was a pretty good list: in a hurry, distracted, it's fun, need to get to something better, etc. at the end, she titled the list Reasons Kids Misbehave. Many people made audible sounds of amazement when she did that.
She then said, "I noticed no one said 'to make the cop mad.'"
Finally, she asked us to think about how we feel when we are stopped by a police officer. People said they feel anxiety, fear, they cry.
We are often the cop to our students. We don't have to be. We don't have to make them feel that way.
If we genuinely believe in their abilities and potential we will treat them in ways that shows them that.
Cross-posted at

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Finding My Voice

This weekend I managed to catch a bit of Interfaith Voices on my local NPR station. I don't usually seek out this show, but I greatly enjoy it when I hear it. This weekend was no exception. The focus was on LGBT individuals, especially within their faith traditions. Even more specifically, the focus on was T in LGBT. The premise being that more and more Americans are comfortable with L and G but less so with T. 
I found myself listening closely to the individuals being interviewed, not only for their stories and thoughts as one might expect, but for their language choices. As I do not know many trans people, I do not feel confident in how best to speak about this group. I noticed I was listening to hear how they identified and described themselves in the hopes of some sense of how best to do so as an outsider. 
In the midst of this it hit me that I tend to avoid participating in such conversations because I'm concerned about saying the wrong thing, coming across as ignorant or worse, or offending someone. And not just in issues of sexual orientation or identity, but also of race and class. As a middle-class, white person I feel uncomfortable.  My position of privilege, rather than giving me strength in my voice, holds me back. 
I'm not proud of this. I'm not okay with this. It was eye-opening to realize it, however. 
As an educator (and really, as a human being) I have no excuse for not speaking up when I am aware of discrimination or mistreatment or any form of inequality based on race or class or gender or sexual orientation or whatever. I have a voice. I will do my best to use it.
I will screw up. I will say the wrong thing. My biases will show. I will offend someone. I will not let any of that stop me.
(Thank you JoseJasonRafranzMelindaSabrina, and Audrey for continuing to highlight and push on this. I am so grateful to have all of you in my twitter timeline.)
Cross-posted at

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Math is More Than Basic Skills

This article came across my twitter feed today and I've read it several times now. The basic gist is that first graders do better in math when they are taught in more traditional ways, textbooks and worksheets and teacher-directed lessons, rather than group work or math games. 
The question that was never addressed to my satisfaction is how that was determined. In the long article, here was the only part that had anything to do with how students' math achievement was judged:
For their study, the researchers analyzed survey responses from 3,635 teachers and data from a subsample of 13,833 children in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, a nationally representative data set maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
I assume the survey responses were used to determine the types of instruction teachers were using. As to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - this was never explained more than it is here. If you are curious to know more, there is information here. I've followed some links there and I'm still not really clear on how these assessments were done. (I'm too lazy to follow through any more.)
Frequently assessments of achievement are made based on standardized tests. When that is the measure, I don't find it at all surprising that traditional methods of instruction are more successful. They are more similar to the assessment. 
Every year we give our kiddos a twenty question standardized test in math in my school district. This year I had several students do poorly who are very knowledgeable and capable in math. Language was a factor for some kids. They try to reason through a wordy problem and get lost as to what they need to do. Changing the wording can change their answer completely. I don't mean dumbing things down in any way - I simply mean that language is tricky and I haven't found a way to ensure that second-language learners have time to truly take in all the ways we say things in English. Other kids got distracted or were uninterested in the test. I get that. I wasn't too interested myself.
I am not trying to suggest that traditional methods of math instruction are not useful. There are skills children need to have at their fingertips. However, defining math only by those skills is doing it, and our students, a great disservice. They need to be able to use those skills in meaningful ways, often with other people. They have to learn that somewhere too.
Cross-posted from

Friday, June 27, 2014

Wednesday was the last day with kiddos. They showed up at the regular time, but went home just two hours later. I crammed a lot into that short time both as a teacher and as a parent. We started our day with our morning meeting and then crammed our backpacks full of things to take home, including our end of the year scrapbook and posters from our walls. We headed across the hall to my younger daughter's classroom to do a final project with them. We created images of ourselves as first graders. One art teacher gave us some beautiful scraps we offered to the kids and they worked hard! You can see they used speech and thought bubbles as well as a range of pictures to capture themselves and their year in first grade. DSC01122 ??????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????   As they worked on these I snuck out to see my older daughter get promoted from fifth grade to sixth grade. I hurried back to help with clean up and get ready for the school-wide dance party (an idea from one of my brilliant teammates).
Finally, at the end of the day, we all rush out to line the street entering our school and wave as cars and buses take the kids away for the summer. We've been doing this for at least a decade and it's an amazing way to end each year. DSC01139
Cross-posted from

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

I Think I Can, I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Just as an FYI because I assume you are all long since finished with this school year, tomorrow is our last day of school.
Some months back I wrote about my intentions to change schools. As I reread it, I sounded so calm about the idea. Now, as I face the actual event, I am terrified.
I have always wanted to be a teacher. Aside from some brief dreams of being Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys and working as a private eye (yes, that's the term I used) teaching is the only job I ever considered. After graduation I postponed teaching in order to play the harp on a cruise ship. Between contracts and after I moved on, I substituted. It wasn't in my original plan, but it was exceptionally beneficial. Eventually I took over a fifth grade classroom for the final quarter of the year, and through that, found a teaching job.
That job was in fourth grade at such an amazing school. I had always thought I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher but my time in fifth grade convinced me that those bigger kids were awesome. They could tie their own shoes, have amazing conversations, work independently, and didn't wet their pants. Wow. The fourth grade job was perfect for me.
For five years I taught fourth graders. Then I looped up with a class to fifth grade. Loved it so much that I went back to fourth grade and did it again. After that I spent two years teaching our new fifth grade gifted class (now called AAP - advanced academics program).
After ten years of teaching I felt I was in a bit of a rut and made the move to first grade. Definitely shook things up! I spent half a year (at least) feeling like I used to be a good teacher. Similar to how my husband felt when he had to learn to drive a stick shift for our honeymoon in Spain.
I've been in first grade now for six years. The longest I've stayed teaching one grade for consecutive years (I did teach fourth grade for a total of six years, just broken up by a year in fifth grade). I've been lucky to be able to shake things up in my current school for the past sixteen years. I recognize that change is critical for me in order to continue growing professionally.
It's time for a change. I was lucky enough to have options, and options that were fabulous. After some serious debating (because apparently I'm not so good at making decisions!), I will now be teaching kindergarten next year.
I am terrified.
I am full of what ifs that are horrific. This is completely out of character for me. But I've been at my current school for sixteen years. Sixteen years. It is home. Both of my daughters attend school there, my oldest for six years now. Most of my closest friends are there. Certainly the majority of people who have helped me grow as a teacher.
There will be much crying tomorrow.
Cross-posted from

End of Year Scrapbook (part 1)

At the end of the year, one of our big projects is to create an end of the year scrapbook. I've done this in a variety of ways and still haven't found a way that really makes me happy. That said, the end result makes me happy every year.
This year I put pictures into individual Pixie files. The kids could open one, save it with their name at the end of the file, and then get to work writing about the picture. Over a few days, my sixteen kiddos captioned 88 pictures!
Sometimes I looked at their work, felt it was a strong, thoughtful effort, and moved on. Other times I conferenced with kids about it. Maybe I thought it was too brief, maybe it had errors that they were able to fix (lack of upper case letters, lack of punctuation, misspelled high frequency words), or maybe it didn't make sense.
I've posted all of their work on our class blog and they'll all get physical copies (two pictures per side so 22 pages per kiddo in black and white). But I decided I want to share them here too. So, here are the first eight!
End of Year Scrapbook 1

One of the things I love about this project is seeing how they view our year. I get a sense of what they valued and what stood out to them. There are lots of captions about writing (something I would have said got short shrift this year). That makes me happy.
End of Year Scrapbook 2
End of Year Scrapbook 3

This is my most literal little friend. I am not surprised to find that he wrote exactly what he is doing in this picture. I do love that he likes to work with his friends!
End of Year Scrapbook 4
End of Year Scrapbook 5

See? These are just the first eight pictures they did. It was random but half of them are about writing. The first one, at the top, I'm not even convinced was a time we were writing!
End of Year Scrapbook 6
End of Year Scrapbook 7

It also makes my day to see how many times these darlings wrote about their thinking. I am so thrilled to see they are aware of the thinking they are doing.
End of Year Scrapbook 8
I also love all the joy in these captions. It is so reassuring to get the sense that they have enjoyed our year together.
Cross-posted from

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Skills My Kiddos Have

We've got twelve full days left this year (our last school day is only two hours long, for some unknown reason). I'm tired (it doesn't help that we're trying to get our house packed up and prepped to go on the market soon) and struggling to be patient and recognize all that is going well. I'm really good at noticing all the things my kiddos still can't (or suddenly can't even though they could a week ago!) do. It's not good.
So, here are some things my kiddos are doing really well (as a reminder to myself):
- using resources to spell words correctly: our word wall, picture dictionaries, other books, writing hanging up around our room - this is happening across the board. Kids' writing is so much clearer now than it was, even just in the winter, partly because they've got this skill down.
- great stamina for independent reading - at the beginning of the year, we could barely read for five minutes without getting distracted. Now we can, as a whole class, read for fifteen or twenty minutes quietly and with total focus. We do this right after morning meeting and it's such a great start to our day.
- listening to each other and sharing thoughts - they will start their ideas with, "I agree with ______ because" or "I disagree with _______" because. Every time they do it I am thrilled because it means they listened and thought about what others said. 
- they ask great questions - I'm not sure this is a new thing, first graders tend to ask great questions. I just love to hear them.
 - I'm not seeing a lot of tattling. Kiddos solve the little problems themselves. We've worked hard this year to be sure everyone can advocate for themselves rather than immediately turn to someone else for help. We've also worked on assuming positive intentions, not jumping to the conclusion that another person was trying to hurt you by what they did or said. Most of the time, kids are hurt, physically or emotionally, by accident. When they are willing and able to self-advocate and speak for themselves, they often not only solve the immediate problem but also learn from each other.
When I can step back and notice how amazing my kiddos are, I feel so lucky to do what I do everyday. I set a high bar (I'm not convinced it's always intentional) and the bar keeps going up as kids meet it. So I lose sight of how far they've come and how amazing they truly are. They are brilliant and I learn so much from them.
Cross-posted from

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

More Focus on Testing

A recent Washington Post article by T. Rees Shapiro details some of the changes our new superintendent is planning to implement, in regards to our school calendar.
Since the 1970s, our elementary schools have dismissed earlier on Mondays. Our kids go home two and a half hours early on Mondays and teachers continue to work, often having many meetings. This was done, if I understand correctly, in order to insure that elementary teachers received the same amount of planning time as middle and high school teachers. 
Our superintendent would like to change this schedule. I'm not against that. It's a pain, as a parent, to have to figure out what to do with my daughters on Monday afternoons. I'm sure I'm not alone in that challenge. (However, most working parents likely already have their kids in child care after school and that covers Monday afternoons as well. Stay at home parents are also set. I would guess it's a small percentage who only need help on Monday afternoons.)
Anyway, the article talks about the reasons and options. I'm not highly invested in this, aside from hoping that if the change happens it is done well. I was struck by the comments. (And I only read the first few!)
The focus is on getting as many school days in before our state testing as possible. Because, according to the comments, that's when the learning stops. I hear this all the time. Our societal view on this is clear. We learn all year, then we take tests, then we are done. 
I've griped before about the messages we send kids about testing and learning. We do it in schools, we do it in the media, we do it in homes. It's everywhere. And I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. 
Children love to learn. We, as a society, kill that love as kids get older. When we tell them that they are learning in order to pass a test, we are killing their love of learning. We need to abolish a significant number of tests (if not all of them) and we need to stop making them the most important thing kids do in school. And we need to do it now.
Cross-posted from

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Hating on Benchmarks

I've never liked benchmarks in school. I don't hate them to the same extent as certain other things, but they frustrate me. They ignore the idea that a child is a complete person, much more complicated than a set of assessments and data.
When you take your infant in for regular well-baby appointments, the nurse always tells you where your little one fits in the percentiles for weight and height (and maybe even head size). Typically, your nurse and doctor are only concerned if your baby is jumping around in those percentiles significantly.  The fact is, for some babies to be in the 80th percentile, there must also be babies in the 20th. Somewhere are the babies who fit at both ends of the range. They have to be. Otherwise you're not talking about percentiles. Doctors track this to be sure a child isn't suddenly losing or gaining a lot of weight. Or to watch for other surprising shifts or differences. It's one piece of information among many they collect.
In schools, benchmarks are often the only thing that matters. For example, every child in our school takes the Developmental Reading Assessment (a one-on-one fluency and comprehension assessment) in the spring (and the fall). At the end of first grade students are expected to be at a level 16. If the child started first grade reading at that level, you can just relax. If the child started the year not reading at all, you've got a mountain to climb, a serious one. But with a benchmark, those two children are looked at through the same lens. That child who never had the chance to read before (or who just wasn't ready yet) and who makes it to a level 14, which is an astounding amount of growth, still missed the benchmark. They are below grade level. What a message to send. (And we do send it. It is marked on their quarterly progress report throughout the year and sent home in a specific letter about the DRA at the end of the year.)
I'm even more irritated by these benchmarks when we measure them so far before the year is over. Summer slide is well documented, especially for children living in poverty. So I accept that the start of each school year (at least since we lost our fabulous modified calendar several years ago) needs to be some catch up time, some repetition of the previous year. But here's the thing, I only get 180 days with these kiddos. That's not even half the days in a calendar year. Not a lot. So when I have to assess them with 30 days left in our year, we're not really checking to see if they finished the year on benchmark. I read today with two of my five who did not make the benchmark. They are just shooting forward as readers right now. For a variety of reasons, these two kiddos (and a few others) are in the midst of a reading growth spurt. In a week or so, I think they could meet the benchmark. But the assessments had to be finished last week. So instead, at the age of seven, they'll be told they're behind. I don't like to tell them that even if I think they are behind (I don't think it's a great way to encourage young children as learners). I especially don't want to tell them that if I think they aren't really behind!
I think benchmarks could be helpful if we used them more like doctors do, as a way to be sure children are growing as they should. It can be easy, when teaching a classroom full of children, not to feel as urgently about the lack of growth for some kids as one would hope. Checking benchmarks regularly helps makes sure kids don't fall through the cracks. But let's not go overboard. Let's give kids time to learn and time to grow and support and encourage them as they do. Let's remember that they are people, with a wide range of skills and needs and they are, every single one of them, unique.
Cross-posted from

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Random Thoughts as We Near the End

I seem to be losing children at about the rate that I am losing my mind in the last few months of the year. One little darling moved at the end of March, another in April. Last Friday was the last day for another, although she's only in Lebanon for a month and will be back at our school for second grade. I learned today that another precious one will finish at our school on Friday. In two months I'll have gone from twenty kids to sixteen. That's a lovely teacher-student ratio, but I didn't want any of these kiddos to go.
Our last math unit of the year is on graphing. Last week the kids got to choose a survey question with preset options for answers. Such as, What is your favorite subject, reading, writing, science, social studies, or math? Or, What is your favorite farm animal, cow, pig, chicken, or horse? The kiddos had the chance to ask their classmates their question and tally the responses. (Not everyone understands how to tally clearly, based on reviewing these tonight.) Then they graphed their results and answered some questions about them. Some of the questions are basic, such as "Which choice on your graph has the most votes?" However, because they could use different survey questions, we had to be creative to work on comparing quantities on the graph. 
Kids had to pick two of their choices and then say which one had more and how many more. This was, not surprisingly, the hardest part. Even knowing that, some of their answers nearly drove me to drink.
Pick two of your choices: Hamster and fish
Which one has more? Hamster (for the record, so far, so good)
How many more?  Dog (Huh?)
Pick two of your choices: Hamster and dog
Which one has more? fish (What?!?)
There are 21 days left with kiddos. (I only know this because our fabulous art teacher is, sadly, retiring and she knows how many days are left.) This is the point in the year at which I am both completely ready to be finished because I'm exhausted and worn down and panicking because there are not nearly enough days left for us to do all the really fun projects we want to do. And then I'm even more tired. Sigh.
Cross-posted at

Sunday, May 25, 2014


I've been in several IEP and 504* meetings lately and it's got me thinking. One of the things we do in each of those meetings is go through a list of accommodations and modifications. Some of these are very specific - the use of Braille, for example - but many are pretty general - extended time, opportunity to respond orally, frequent breaks, etc. 
As I reviewed those general accommodations I realized that these are things that are available to my kiddos. All my kiddos. Pretty much whenever they need them. I don't care if they have an IEP or a 504, I want to be sure they are able to learn all they can and share all they've learned. If that means they need to get up and walk around a bit, that's fine. If that means they need to talk to me rather than write things down, great. (If the goal is writing, obviously they'll have to do some writing, but if the goal is sharing their knowledge about maps, they can talk rather than write.)
Mostly I'm happy to realize this. So many of these things are just a part of our classroom I don't really think about them. (Of course, it took sixteen years to get to that point.) However, when I'm concerned that a child is significantly struggling this can actually be a problem. I've been to our Responsive Intervention Team several times this year to discuss different kiddos. One of the things I have to do is create a list of accommodations I've provided for that child in order to show that I've tried different things. I struggle with this every time. Can I say a student has preferential seating if that's true for all of them because they choose where to sit based on what they need (lots of space, move to the back of the carpet - need to stand, there's a tall table for that - need to work alone, go to one of our small tables)? Can I say they get frequent breaks if they all know they can get up and get water or just walk a bit if they need to? 
If the accommodations are just a part of our classroom culture, how do I list this for my referral for support? Also, how do I better support these kiddos who are still struggling in spite of this classroom culture (or maybe even because of it)?

*IEPs are Individualized Education Plans, created for students requiring special education support and 504 plans are for students who need accommodations, but not special education support, often students with ADHD or other such challenges.
Cross-posted from

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Lawrence Block wrote a series of books about a man named Evan Tanner. This is not Block's most popular mystery series by any stretch, but it's my personal favorite. Don't pick these up if you aren't willing to do some serious suspending of disbelief. I am and I believe these books are worth it.
Evan was injured during the Korean War and the sleep center of his brain was damaged. As a result, he does not sleep. Ever. He can't. I love this because it explains how he has been able to learn a ridiculous number of languages, read about history and current events in many different countries, and basically just know so much more than I do about anything. He has six to eight more hours everyday than I do!
I am jealous of Evan, even when Block writes scenes into the books that show how challenging this can be because Evan has to pretend to sleep at times to keep up appearances with others. Just lying in bed for extended periods does not appeal to me. But the trade off would be worth it.
As a parent and as a teacher, sleep is something I think about way too often. My husband and I just chatted tonight about our daughters' bedtime and whether or not we thought it was working for them (and, to be honest, for us). I have many conversations with parents about when their children go to bed. In fact, for homework every night one of the things my kiddos write down is, "Bed by 8."
There seems to be a lot of research supporting my obsession with sleep. KQED in San Francisco had a brief thing about how our students need more sleep. Basically we think they're getting plenty of sleep but they aren't. 
Ed Week covered a study suggesting the supreme importance of regular bedtimes for young children in regards to their behavior.
And the BBC wrote about the way in which sleep cleanses our brains of toxins. This opens up lots of questions about how much sleep impacts brain disorders as well as more common behavior or learning challenges.
Reading all of these is reassuring and validating. However, I've had conversations with folks I greatly respect who grew up in other cultures who have told me that bedtimes didn't exist. Kids went to bed when they were tired. It seemed to work, at least in their eyes.
So I have to wonder, has our society's focus on sleep and bedtimes impacted our beliefs about this? Have we created structures that mean we require more structured sleep? Or are consistent bedtimes and a certain amount of sleep truly critical? 
Cross-posted at

Monday, May 19, 2014

One Way to Have Kids Reflect

We still have many weeks to go until the end of our school year, but I know that many schools are closer to the end - much closer. If that's true for you, congratulations. Also, I've got an option for you to have your kiddos reflect on their year. I've mentioned it before, but it seems appropriate at this point in the year. My oldest, currently a fifth grader, created a site she titled, How WE Feel
Thanks to another teacher I met at the White House Teacher Appreciation Social, she is going to be adding to it soon (maybe tomorrow). He suggested including the arts, which she (and I) agree is brilliant. 
Anyway, if you have a few free minutes as you near the end, this might be a great way to have students think back on their year (or on multiple years) and share how they are feeling about school.
As an added bonus, it would make my daughter's day.
Cross-posted at

Friday, May 16, 2014

Play or Work

"That looks like playing, not working," I heard my self say to a child during our reading and writing workshop time earlier this week.
To set the stage, I was working with a couple of students in a guided reading group while the other sixteen kiddos were either writing or at a work station (in our classroom library, sorting high frequency words, working in their poetry binders, or retelling stories with a partner). So it's a very busy time. 
I noticed a child I thought was messing around rather than writing and I said, "That looks like playing, not working." As soon as these words came out of my mouth I thought, "What the heck? Why did I say that?"
The message I just sent to that child was that playing is not okay in our classroom, at least not during reading and writing. Also, that reading and writing are work and not play.
Those messages go against everything I believe. In spite of that fact, I doubt any student in my class was surprised to hear me make that statement. Both because of societal beliefs about work and play and what they've come to expect within our classroom, I'm sure my statement was completely routine. So sad. I can do better by these darlings. 
We say so much more than we realize frequently. This week I heard two other adults in our school chastise students for being too loud in the hall because testing was going on. I understand the urge, but would so much prefer students be quiet in the hall because learning is going on. Otherwise we're telling kids testing is so much more important than learning. I'm not comfortable with that message. 
Anyway, next week's big goal will be to more closely live my beliefs about the importance of play in learning and work to show that to my students. I want them to see learning as play. That doesn't mean it's easy but it's fun.
Cross-posted at

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Coda to Roller Coaster Day

In the midst of the panic and fear as we searched for my missing student, there were at least three of us calling other kiddos. We went through the bus list and called kids who use the same bus stop and other kids on that bus we know to be responsible and observant. We also called a few kids from my class. It was quite an impressive system with some folks searching lists for useful names, others looking up those kiddos' information, and others making the calls.
As I was scanning a list I realized one of the other teachers who had jumped in to help (even when she really should have been picking her own kids up from their babysitter) was struggling to communicate. I turned and asked if she needed some help with Spanish. She said yes and I grabbed the phone. 
I'm not sure what I was thinking. There was a period in my life when I could have grabbed that phone and had a perfectly coherent conversation in Spanish. However that period was about twenty years ago. But I was in a panic and not thinking clearly.
To me, the conversation went something like this:
Hello? I would like to speak with L. I'm a teacher at A.T. 
L. is not here. He is at another house.
Can I call him there? Do you have that number? We need to ask him about another student on the bus this morning.
I don't have that number on hand. But I can contact him and have him call you.
Yes. Thank you.
And I hung up. However, I hung up completely uncertain if that really had been the conversation. And uncertain as to whether or not he would call. Fortunately, a few minutes later L. called us. Unfortunately L. had not been on the bus today.
As I reflected on the conversation, much later in a much calmer state of mind, I realized the conversation probably sounded more like this:
Hello? Me talks with L. Me teacher A.T.
L. is not here. He is at another house.
Me call here? You know number? We want question about other student bus today.
I don't have that number on hand. But I can contact him and have him call you.
Yes. Thank you.
When I shared these thoughts with my daughters, my fifth grader said, "Wow mom, she was probably wondering how you could be a teacher if you talked like that." Good point, girl, good point. 
Even though we didn't get helpful information from L. I appreciate that whoever I talked with at his house was so patient with my terrible Spanish and still took me seriously. We truly have the greatest families at our school. 
Cross-posted at

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Roller Coaster Day

I'm going to pass over all the ups and downs that happened before we even got to school (nothing like a road closed on your commute when you're already running late) or those during the school day (including the girl I had to speak with about scratching a classmate who later wrote "Ms. Orr is my BFF" as she worked in Pixie). Don't you just love how I'm passing over those parts of the roller coaster?
Because the serious, heart-in-your-throat, couldn't-go-higher-and-then-drop-lower, part of the roller coaster happened after school.
As my last kiddos were heading out my phone rang. It was my principal telling me there was a parent in the office registering their child for Head Start. As I, in my post-school haze, tried to figure out what on earth this might have to do with me, she continued and named the parent. Oh my. He was in my class about ten years ago, for both fourth and fifth grades. The backstory is here and I won't repeat it because today's story is enough.
Suffice it to say he has a darling three-year-old daughter (we looked at lots of pictures and videos on his phone), finished high school, and is working as a supervisor at a large retail spot nearby. He's doing well. It hasn't been easy; he and his daughter's mother are not together but are sharing parenting duties seemingly quite well. The high school diploma was shockingly hard to manage as he failed math his senior year. He attempted to take the course in summer school and in spite of registering and coughing up the money, he was told when he showed up on the first day that he wasn't on the roll and because the class was full he couldn't take it. (His money was refunded.) From his perspective his former principal made it exceptionally hard for him to finish this one course and it took teachers banding together and appealing higher up to make it happen. But he kept fighting for it and finally was able to take the course and graduate. Just more proof to me of his willingness to work hard and make things happen. (This barely touches on the challenges he has faced over the years.) We spent nearly half an hour talking and he promised to come and visit again. I told him to bring that little cutie with him! Cloud nine.
As he left I turned to chat briefly with another teacher and was grabbed by our office manager. She was on the phone with a mom because one of my students hadn't gotten off the bus. This happens on occasion and it scares me but I stay pretty optimistic. It always turns out the kiddo rode the wrong bus or walked home with a friend or headed to grandma's house. But this time I panicked immediately. This child hadn't been at school today. Optimism went out the window for me. Needless to say we kicked into gear immediately. We (office manager, me, two administrators, and three other teachers) talked with mom, dad, and big brother. We called various kids who ride the same bus to see what they could remember from the morning. We called other kids from my class to see if they had seen this little friend before school started this morning. We called the police. After about 45 minutes the student was found, safe and sound. I don't yet have all the details (and don't feel comfortable sharing some) so I will be so curious to hear the story tomorrow!
Teaching is always a roller coaster. I don't mind that, sometimes it's even fun. But I don't think I've ever gone from this high to this low this quickly.
Cross-posted from

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What a Day

My husband has recently learned that I will apply for anything that interests me. My attitude seems to be, why not? What can it hurt? He learned this because a couple of weeks ago I applied to attend a White House Teacher Appreciation Social. It crossed my radar at 5:30 one morning and I thought, why not? I don't remember exactly what the application entailed, but it was pretty short. I believe it requested our various social media links and there were two questions. Based on my memories (and some discussion today) the questions were 'What makes you unique as a teacher?' and 'Why do you want to attend this event?' As I spent a while at 5:30 in the morning I kept thinking, "Why am I wasting my time on this? There is no way I will get to go."
I was wrong. The email arrived last week informing me that I had been accepted to attend. I was in shock. I'm still in shock. There were 21 of us at the event today - amazing teachers from all over: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin, and more. I felt a bit like an impostor as I showed up after dropping my girls off at school and stopping for gas. These folks drove many hours or flew across the country. I also spent the day wondering what on earth I had done to deserve to be there. I think there might have been a lot of luck!
I have many, many, many thoughts about today, but for the moment, I don't have it in me. Instead, I'll share a few photos and keep processing the day to share soon.
Marine One Collage
Once we got through security we were ushered out to the South Lawn. As we stood there among a crowd of White House staffers and high schoolers on a field trip, Marine One landed in front of us, Barack Obama walked across the lawn, waved, and climbed aboard. We watched as he waved through the window on the first leg of his journey to Arkansas to visit the site of the recent tornado. It was amazing and completely unexpected. 
image (2)
Most of our time was spent in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (I took more selfies today than I have taken in my entire life. I am not ashamed of that!)
Me and Jill
In the EEOB we were in a conference room that is a part of the Vice President's suite (for lack of a better description - all of his staffers are in offices around there). The room contained a ceremonial desk (it has been used in the past but is now used only ceremonially). Just down the hall was Dr. Jill Biden's office. She took a picture with each one of us there and then joined us for lunch and a group picture. I have a major crush on her now.
Group with Jill    
We also met with Arne Duncan and several other administration officials who are involved in various education initiatives. They shared with us about these initiatives and policies and asked us about ideas for how to continue or publicize or improve. They also took questions from us. It was a completely unreal day.
Cross-posted from

Monday, May 05, 2014

Language Matters

There are often multiple adults in my classroom - sometimes they are teachers and instructional assistants, other times they are volunteers or family members of students. As we transition from one activity to another I typically ask students to go to the carpet for us to meet together. The language I use might be, "If you aren't working with a teacher, wrap up what you are doing and please come to the carpet." 
One day when a fabulous volunteer was working with one student, it occurred to me that this language didn't really work. Instead, I said, "If you aren't working with an adult, wrap up what you are doing and please come to the carpet." Great. Problem solved.
I thought about it a bit more (because I tend to be a tad obsessive about these things) and realized this language is way better. Not because not every adult isn't a teacher, because they all are, even if that isn't their title. It's way better language because everyone is a teacher. I know I haven't conveyed that to my students as well as I want to, but at a minimum I can ensure the language I use doesn't undermine the idea. 
Cross-posted at

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Parenting vs. Teaching

Friday we took a field trip into Washington, D.C. The original plan had been to walk around the Tidal Basin, as we’ve done for the past two years. Sadly, due to some insane rains earlier in the week, the Tidal Basin was flooded and we had to make a last minute change. We ended up at Smithsonian’s Museum of National History (a museum I love). So there wasn’t a lot of time to prep kids for this trip (as we had spent a lot of time prepping them for a trip that wasn’t to be).
I knew we wouldn’t be able to do too much of the museum in just two hours. We watched this video before going and they talked about what excited them. Based on those conversations and our curriculum, I picked four exhibits for us to hit – and hoped we’d actually make it to all four!
As we made our way through the museum, sometimes at leisure and sometimes rushing, I found myself comparing this experience to taking my daughters to a museum. For our field trip I had a pretty set agenda for us. I talked to the kids about some questions and ideas to be thinking about in each exhibit. We fanned out in exhibits and gathered back to talk about what we had found and what we were thinking. The kids had cameras (one for every two kids) and they took almost 600 pictures. We’ll use those pictures to build on this experience for the next few weeks. All in all, it felt like a pretty successful field trip.
When I take my girls to a museum I do tend to some planning ahead, looking at the layout and possibilities. But we share the decisions throughout. If they see something that interests them, we’ll check it out. If something isn’t as interesting as we’d hoped, we move on. I don’t care if what we see has anything to do with their curriculum at school. I care that we all get to follow our interests and questions.
As a parent, at museums or just in our daily lives, I get to dig deep into questions with my girls (hence recent dinner conversations about the Holocaust and the Challenge explosion). We can get books from the library and look things up online. I don’t have to stop a conversation because we need to move on to our next subject or next standard.
One of my goals as a teacher is to get as close as possible to who I am as a parent (at least in terms of following our passions and interests).
Cross-posted from

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Questions I Ask

I recently asked our new (phenomenal) instructional coach to help me out with the questions I am asking students. She came in three different times, during a language arts focus lesson, a math focus lesson, and our calendar time.
I have thought a lot about questioning during calendar and expected to find that I asked much better questions during that time than I did at other times. What she noted and our discussion was highly enlightening. (This was about a month ago and I'm still mulling it on a daily basis.)
First of all, I can't say how helpful this was. I could have videotaped my lessons and watched them to explore my questioning, but I think I would have been distracted by so many other things, even if I managed to stay just focused on me in the videos! Our instructional coach wrote down all the questions I asked. Having that list to review was perfect.
I was thrilled to see that I encourage my students to explain their thinking. When a student shares their thinking I ask for others to agree or disagree. We've established a routine so students do so and explain why. I spent a lot of time early in the year working on this during calendar. Looking at the lists, I found that it has spread out through our day. Good news.
On the downside, I ask a lot of really basic questions. Not yes or no questions, which had been my fear, but questions which don't dig too deep. I have some concerns about Bloom's taxonomy but I have been reviewing some resources based on it in the hopes of pushing my students' thinking more. The prompts and sample questions are helping me do a deeper analysis and plan questions accordingly.
One thing I've learned over a decade and a half of teaching is that I'm never going to reach my bar. I'm really proud of the strategies I've taught that result in my students explaining their thinking independently. But now I need to make that thinking more complex. The benefit of these years is that over time I build skills and routines. In a couple of years I expect my students will be explaining their more complex thinking!
Cross-posted at

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pausing for Breath

It's a time of year when I have trouble keeping perspective. We still have eight weeks left but I doubt any of them will be normal weeks. We've got concerts, testing, field days, end of year picnics, more testing, class pictures, final field trips, even more testing, and who knows what else. We've got to be flexible, patient, and muddle through. And, ideally, stay focused on what matters.
As a result I feel a need to pause a bit to celebrate some things I've done well this year. It's easy for me to focus on all the things I haven't done this year or didn't do well, all the things I wish I had done better. 
For a number of years now I have been sending postcards to my students. I figure everyone loves to get mail and chances are good parents will see the postcard as well. Here are three I wrote this afternoon.
Postcard 2
Many of the postcards I send are focused on academic successes. When a student does something awesome during the day I try to grab a postcard that day and write to them.
Postcard 3
Other postcards are about different kinds of successes. Anything that is hard for a student is worth celebrating when they do it well. (I also put the bit in here about being tired as a hint to these parents too - here's hoping!).
Every once in a while the postcard might be about something important to that kiddo. 
My goal every year has been to send each kiddo four postcards - one each quarter or so. I've never once made that goal. At this point all but a handful of my students have received three postcards. I might just make it this year.
On a side note, one of my darlings wrote this today:
Dear Class Letter
"Dear class this has been the Best skoll year of my life thanks to a few" - then it said, "special friends and" listed kids in our class. As a first grader this is only her third year of school (Head Start, kindergarten, and now) so the whole 'best school year of my life' thing isn't quite as meaningful as it might be in a few years, but I'll take it!
Cross-posted at