Monday, October 5, 2015

Pre-reading Skills vs the Alphabet

"Does she know all of her letters?" the pediatrician asked me at my daughter's four year old well-visit. After a pause I had to respond, "I think so, almost all of them, on most days," because I really wasn't sure. I hadn't sat down with flashcards to quiz her and there had been days she this summer she confused k and x. The pediatrician looked up at me for a moment, perhaps wondering what sort of mother doesn't have an immediate working knowledge of her four year old's alphabet skills, and responded with, "They are going to want her to know all of her letters and letter sounds by the time she gets to kindergarten." 

Well, yes, I suppose they do want that, but there are plenty of kids who don't know their letters and the sounds. I'm pretty sure that before she goes to kindergarten she'll work out her confusion between x and k, and if not then we'll break out some significant teaching strategies to help her learn the difference. "She will. I'm not worried," is what I told my pediatrician, but what I really wanted to tell her was about all the other early reading signs my daughter is mastering.

I wanted to tell her how my daughter loves to play with words, isolating the initial sound and telling me what letter a word begins with. I wanted to tell her how my daughter loves pointing to words within a text- even when we are reading a chapter book. She loves working on her one to one correspondence, making each word I say match her finger. She loves finding environmental print and reading signs to us "Target," "CVS," "Zinga." She plays with rhymes constantly and will yell out rhymes from the back of the car when we think she's deep in thought. What about her love of books and stories, how she loves being read to, loves looking at the pages of her favorite books, and loves making up her own stories?

Perhaps I'm just a proud parent, but there is so much more to reading readiness than simply knowing the alphabet. I'm OK with a few letter confusions if the other components of literacy are coming along.

The alphabet is an easy piece of knowledge to question in the doctor's office, and even on kindergarten entry assessments. But reading is so much more than that. It's so complex- each little component our children need to grasp before true reading comes together. I'm not ready to quiz my daughter on her letter knowledge. Not yet. She has time. But I am ready to encourage word play, rhyming games, one to one matching, a love of books, and lots and lots of read alouds.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

40 Hour Work Week?

One of my favorite education bloggers, Angela Watson recently wrote about maintaining a forty hour work week as a teacher. This resonated with me because this is an area where I've been forced to grow as a teacher. I still struggle with the guilt of whether or not I can be a good teacher without putting in those long hours.

When I first started teaching I put in 12 hour days as though someone was going to hand out medals for long hours in the building. I hoped that those extra hours would solve the behavior problems, help me maintain a better pace for the focus lessons, or magically make all of my students better readers. The days slowly moved from 12 to 10 hours in the building with more work to do at home for years. During those years I believed that putting in those extra hours was what was going to make me a great teacher. It was a young, misguided thought, but it was what I believed. Being young, with no family at home, and many of my friends at the school itself, it was easy to spend the majority of my time doing school related work.

Then I decided to start my phd and I spent a year racing out of school as soon as I could so that I could get into downtown DC for my classes. Suddenly I was forced to put up boundaries with my time and prioritize my work. It felt ridiculously difficult and I struggled that year wondering if a phd was really going to be worth it if I didn't feel like I could devote enough time to my job. Those kids deserved more than a teacher who had to leave at 4 to go home to her stats homework, I often thought.  Of course a new development overshadowed the phd- I became pregnant and the following year I wasn't racing off to a stats class- I had a baby at home and a daycare that closed at 4:30. I no longer had a choice about staying late and I couldn't contemplate quitting motherhood for my students like I had with my doctorate program. I had to find a way to balance my work.

It's been a five year journey of trying to maintain a 40 hour work week, or really, let's be honest- a 50 hour work week. What strikes me the most is that I know it is doable, and I know that I can still be an extremely effective teacher without putting in the extra time. It's the guilt that eats me up. So many teachers do stay late and put in those long extra hours that I often feel like somehow I'm not as dedicated or devoted to my profession as I could be. As though I'm missing my membership in the 10 hour+ club, which somehow is also the same as a membership to the great teachers society. It's not.

It was a hard realization to come to because I had so many years of putting in long hours, and being proud of the extra work I devoted each day. Slowly realizing that I can prioritize and work more effectively has been difficult.

One of my former colleagues, who was excellent herself at maintaining a 40 hour work week, talked about those who viewed teaching as a religion and those who understood it was a job with boundaries. This always stuck with me, probably because when she said it I was in the religion camp (at the time the comment stung). Back then I saw teaching was the most important job anyone could do, and every moment I spent on my students as being sacred. It also meant I could be sanctimonious about those who didn't put in the long hours. As the years have changed and I've grown up I have moved from seeing it was a religion to a profession. A very important profession, but not one that needs to demand every moment of my day. A good, effective teacher does not depend on the extra hours the teacher puts in during the day, but how well the students learn.

This is a profession that can eat you alive if you let it. There is always more to do and never enough hours in the day. I don't think a day has gone by in 12 years of teaching when I walked out of the building without feeling like there was more to do. Even after working a 12 hour day. But we are more effective teachers when we are at our best, well rested, and have a healthy big-picture perspective. 

Angela Watson's latest post is about prioritizing tasks during the day when you are trying to keep to a 40 hour work week. She has some excellent tips here. Some of these I wish I had learned sooner in my career.

As a profession we need to help each other maintain our sanity and keep realistic hours. We can't let ourselves get sucked into the trap of feeling like we are only doing our job if we are going above and beyond. Too often we pressure each other into over doing it and create a culture of expecting those long days. We burn each other out, which isn't good for us or our students who need us at our best every day. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Grappling with 9/11

As I quietly went from desk to desk in a fifth grade classroom to monitor their progress on a grammar worksheet I bent over one boy's desk to offer feedback. In the midst of my whispered conversation the girl to my left tapped me on the shoulder. "Were the Twin Towers knocked down on purpose, or by accident?" she whispered, her brow furrowed with confusion. The boy I was working with popped his head up. "I told you," he retorted, "It was an accident!" She ignored him and asked me the question again, "Was it on purpose, or an accident?"

A week after the anniversary the question took me by surprise. I was focused on explaining to an English language learner that rebake wasn't a word but reheat was. These were fifth graders. Surely they knew the history of 9/11.

I realized I wasn't sure the right way to approach the question. I handled it (unfortunately) like any disgruntled teacher does when an off topic conversation rears its head during a lesson. "It was on purpose but we aren't talking about that right now. Get back to work." How in the midst of a grammar lesson do you stop and explain 9/11? Somehow it seems like it would be the parents' job to teach what happened, but I certainly don't know when I'll sit down with my own children and say, "So, one day not so long ago people from another country got on airplanes and intentionally flew them into big buildings. Because they don't like our country. But it's OK to get on airplanes, that doesn't usually happen. And your uncle is totally OK in his fancy office building in New York City. Normally airplanes don't hit buildings."

If I can't imagine having that conversation with my own children, how do we have that conversation in a classroom with other people's children? It's not part of the curriculum and we aren't expected to teach it or even talk about it. There's a part of me that worries if we did talk about we would get letters from upset parents who felt it wasn't our place to discuss 9/11 with their children. So we stay away from it and continue with business as usual.

I was in college when 9/11 occurred, so I  did not have to come to school on September 12th and explain the day before to my students, but in the years to come my students remembered the day, or at least knew about it because it was still so raw for all of us. In those first few anniversary years my school invited the marine band to come play for us and we had essay writing contests about what freedom means. Now the anniversary comes and goes and we barely notice it.

The kids know something happened, but they don't have the full story. Someone should talk about it. Someone should teach it. We can't gloss over our history because it's uncomfortable. Perhaps we're not quite ready as a society to turn it into a social narrative with a lesson to be learned at the end, like we have with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or slavery. When we teach those there is a clear message we can open and end with. If the students walk away with one piece of information from the lesson it should be that it doesn't matter if you appear different- everyone is the same inside. (We're talking elementary school- in high school you can get into the finer points.) When we teach slavery there is a clear, "This was absolutely horrible and will never happen again" message that can underline the lessons. Have we settled on the same single narrative for 9/11?

Or perhaps it's hard for us to teach because we don't feel we can look at a roomful of students and honestly say it won't happen again. Do we get into promising the students that TSA will keep us all safe? That it is totally OK to get onto airplanes because statistically speaking they won't crash into tall buildings? Do we tell them it's not about religion or nationality and tell them not to fear those who are different from them? (We could contrast 9/11 with school shootings- of people who cause horror who are from our country and are similar to us.) Perhaps we're too worried that as we talk about it our own fears, anger, or skepticism will come out. And since we haven't come to a single narrative for 9/11 as we have for other historical events in our country we shy away from the topic, worried our words will upset children and families.

We need a beautiful, Patricia Palocco children's book that will let us grapple with the hard message as we follow a single set of characters. Is it still too soon for us grown ups? The children need to hear something about our history. Where do we start?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Following Their Lead- Starting a Drama Club

The reading specialist and I sat down with a small group of fifth graders to let them know that they'd been selected to participate in a drama club two days a week during their lunch time. Many of them participated in readers' theater at the end of last year and we'd noticed just how involved they'd become with the plays. In fact, one boy kept asking me when he can write his own play, and after every book we read the group asks when we can put it together as a play. If they were this interested in putting on plays we figured we needed to follow their lead and give them the opportunity.

The group is made up of students we know are interested in plays, but also a group of students who need extra practice to read at grade level. We're hoping the drama club will help with their fluency as well as their ability to discuss characters, main idea, and promote a deeper understanding of comprehending the text.

The group cheered when we told them. They applauded and laughed with excitement. One girl asked what drama was. Once she understood then she smiled with satisfaction at the idea. Another boy asked if this meant he got double reading, and when I said yes, two days a week, he cheered again. We'd basically just delivered the message that they were going to miss lunch with their friends twice a week in order to do extra reading. And they couldn't stop smiling, which of course meant we couldn't stop smiling either. Their reaction to our news will continue to play on my mental highlight reel when I think about reasons I love my job. It felt like Christmas morning.

Today is our first day and -fingers crossed- hopefully the energy will continue. I hope that following this group's interest and passion will help us close the gap and send them off to middle school reading on grade level. This is our last chance with this group of students and we owe it to them to do everything we can to give them the literacy and critical thinking skills they'll need the rest of their lives. Why not have fun doing it?

Monday, September 14, 2015

No Nap? The horrors of the first day of kindergarten

About an hour into the first day of school a kindergartner began to sniffle, trying to hold back his tears. When I approached him he whispered, "I miss my Mommy, my Grandma, my Auntie and my sister. I want to go home!" I led him over to the schedule and showed him what he'd do today so he'd know when he got to go home to his family. As I finished his eyes widened. "Miss," he whispered, "you forgot nap time!" 

"Oh, there isn't nap time in kindergarten," I had to say, feeling like the meanest woman on earth.  "But there is quiet time. You can look at books." He didn't appreciate my feeble attempt to sell it. "No nap time?" he whispered, in true horror. Slowly and sadly I shook my head. "No nap time."

As adults it's easy for us to forget how rough the first days of kindergarten can be, especially for children who didn't go to preschool- or even those who did but went for half a day or were able to take a two hour nap. We are asking so much of those little five year olds in those first few days-- from sitting still for longer periods of time than they've ever been asked to do before, to going all day without a nap. (I know some five year olds have given up their afternoon naps by kindergarten, but some haven't.)

The boy's big eyes have haunted me all week. "No nap?" As though he was questioning what kind of place he'd been sent. Those eyes were a good reminder to not expect students to already be where I want them to be the first week of school. To slow down and teach everything I want to them to know and understand. To be slower and more understanding as children learn routines. Not to change my expectations of what they learn, but to be more understanding as they learn them. Before we know it October will be here and the students will all know the routines and be comfortable with what we expect from them. Until then, I need to keep in mind where they are coming from as a way to remind myself to be patient as we adapt together.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Play Hard and Get Dirty!

Playing in the tunnel
For one last summer get away my family and I snuck off to the Blue Ridge Mountains for a few days. It was a glorious get away, and one of the highlights of the trip was exploring the Play Trail at Boxerwood Gardens in Lexington, Virginia. It was magical, and if we hadn't been interrupted by our growling stomachs we could have stayed there forever, eating in the mud kitchen, digging to China, playing with the life-size Lincoln Logs, running in and out of the various hidden tree-formed play spaces, and just generally getting dirty outside.

There was somewhat of a sense of magic that seemed to linger over the play space as children kept discovering new wonders around every turn. Some of these wonders were planted there by the designers- the tunnel, the mud pie kitchen, the play camp fires- while other wonders were just there- the moss, acorns, trees, leaves, and flowers- that would have been overlooked on a suburban playground. Here, those small natural treasures called out to be played with.

Digging to China is serious work
Life size Lincoln Logs!
Cooking on the play campfire
Tight rope walking!
Both of my girls absolute favorite part of the play trail was the mud pie kitchen. It had a kitchen area complete with a life-size sink and two shelving units where children can select the perfect pan. Next to it was the "Dirty Bistro" where the creations of the mud kitchen could be served to friends or adults. Notice the stump-stairs on the walk up encouraging gross motor skills.
Selecting the right pan
Nearby was a wash station stocked with scrub brushes where the children could un-mud the dishes. I noticed this was extremely popular, not just with my own daughter but with the other visiting children as well.

I watched my suburban girls slowly become comfortable with scooping up mud, moss, and sticks. My particular four year old stopped worrying about getting mud on her shirt and started looking for little nature finds- special rocks, twigs, and grasses- to put into her mud pies. We need more of this- places that light a match to the imagination without handing the child an already created play scheme. More play spaces that foster exploration and creativity, encouraging our little ones to use their gross and fine motor skills in a natural, spontaneous way.

Our Own Mud Pie Kitchen (Get Dirty part 2!)

After our amazing morning exploring the Play Trail at Boxerwood Gardens in Lexington I decided we needed our own mud pie kitchen in our back yard. A trip to Target produced three of these plastic cube crates- two for the kitchen structure and one for the table. A black sharpie let us draw burners on the top of one crate to get the sense of a stove. We stocked the kitchen with supplies from the Dollar Tree- cooking spoons, pans, measuring spoons, a scrub brush, and mixing bowls and then we supplemented with other supplies we found in our own house that were begging to be re-purposed. In a very short time for not much money we suddenly had our own mud pie kitchen.

Acorn cupcakes with yellow leaf sprinkles
All of a sudden my girls went from not wanting to walk in the grass with their shoes off to exclaiming in delight when they found nature treasures- acorns, pine needles, yellow leaves- hidden in the grass. Nature become an opportunity for imagination and exploration as opposed to an irritation to be dealt with while getting to their other toys. They were spontaneously engaging in fine motor tasks I could have spent time and energy creating for them inside. They pulled pine needles off branches to use as sprinkles, shredded leaves, pulled apart moss, and used an ice cream scoop to transfer acorns from one bowl to another.

Filling cupcake tins

We've lived in our house since November and until now I never felt like we were using our backyard. We'd occasionally use it for activities, but my girls never embraced the fact they were outside. Now they are exploring parts of the yard they hadn't gone to before and are looking at every leaf as a potential pretend ingredient. This is what I wanted from a yard when we moved out to the suburbs but it's taken me this long to find it.

I put the kitchen on top of an old sandbox we don't use anymore.