Friday, June 10, 2016

Jumping Off

I'm about to close out on my 13th year of teaching. It does not seem possible it has been that long because in so many ways I feel like I am still a recent college graduate, excited to start on my adventures in teaching but with so much to learn.

Yet a lot has happened in those 13 years and I've been able to see many different facets in the field of education. I've taught in three different schools. I've had my own general education classroom, and my own special education classroom. I've supported children in inclusion classrooms in every grade but second. I've been the local screening chair, which is a fancy title for dealing with the paperwork side of the special education eligibility process within my school. I worked at a brand new school and experienced what it is like to open a new building.

Somewhere in there something changed. I can't put my finger on what it was, or when it happened. But something - maybe me, maybe the profession - is very different than in was when I entered the field 13 years ago.

So after some nail-biting months, long talks about the future, what I want out of life, and how to get there, I decided that after this school year I will be taking a leave of absence from teaching. I'm not finished with teaching or education, at least, I don't think so.

Like many teachers out there I have a love/hate relationship with teaching. The field has changed considerably in the last 13 years and is very different than when I entered the profession. There is a different feel in the day to day life of a school. The thing is (and I realize this makes me different than many of the teachers out there who write public "I'm quitting" letters) I'm not sure the change is all that bad. We should be asking the tough questions about why children are not learning, and we should be making sure every single child is working on grade level, or at least has a plan to get them there. I have seen many positive changes at my current school that involve practices that did not exist in the field ten years ago. My struggle is that I'm not sure where my role in these changes should be or if I fit here at all.

I continue to love working with children. I LOVE teaching children to read and I love working with children with unique needs. I love teaching children social skills and emotional regulation. I love creating behavior plans, helping teachers manage behaviors in their classroom, and building positive communities within classrooms. I don't intend to use the word 'love' lightly here either. I mean it. I love these aspects of my day. I did not go to law school because I knew I loved these things. I knew I wanted to wake up everyday and go to a job I loved instead of a job that could provide financial security and a respectful social status. But now I'm not sure I can say I love coming to work every day.

My head has been swimming with questions. Is it me or the profession? Has being a mom changed my daily passion toward my job? Is teaching a job I will only enjoy if I can put in 12 hour days? Did the profession change in a way I no longer am comfortable with my introverted habits? Has what I wanted out of life changed? Why am I no longer fulfilled by what I am doing? What's missing? Am I asking too much from a job? Should I be happy with a job that provides a steady income and allows me to help others? Is it fair to ask for more?

I know I want to go back and get my PhD, but I am not sure exactly in what area of education or which school. I've tried to figure that out while working and taking care of my girls but I haven't been overly successful with that search. I need time.

What else is out there?

I have different projects in the works. I am working with some amazing people and we hope to have some social skills groups and music/literacy programs up and running this summer and next fall. (If you live in the Northern Virginia area and are interested in these please let me know!) I am continuing to provide sensory storytimes at a local library and have started a newsletter to give parents additional ways to engage their children in learning.

Next year will be my gap year where I can follow different projects to see what I enjoy and what doesn't quite do it for me. Perhaps in a year I will be back at my school, appreciating the structure and routine of employment (not to mention the secure paycheck), loving the kids and the teamwork a school provides. Or perhaps I will enroll in a PhD program, or find another alternative I can't even dream up right now.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

End of Year Teacher Thoughts

Out of the corner of my eye I see the fifth grader look up from his work and study me for a moment. "Mrs. Lipstick, what are you thinking about?" he asks sincerely.
"Nothing," I mutter. "Finish your test." I can't tell him the truth.

What am I thinking about? 

I'm thinking about the fact that I've worked with these children for the last three years. That's three years of them interrupting my thoughts, keeping me up at night as they've found way into my consciousness while I watch TV, drive to work, or am play with my own children. Three years of carefully selecting reading books for them, studying their decoding skills, listening to them re-tell stories, and constantly contemplating how to move them to the next level. Push on, push on, push on.

I'm thinking that it's over now. End of year assessments are wrapping up and my chances to bring them up to grade level or help them pass their state testing are almost gone. We'll send them to middle school next year, trusting another set of educators to pick up where we've left off, loving them them and fighting for them like we have.

I'm thinking about how lost I feel. How deflated. How I wish I'd done more. Put more time into those guided reading lessons, chosen better books, or done more to increase their vocabulary. Written better IEP goals. Advocated more. Pushed harder. Been a better teacher.

I'm thinking that even though my school is set up so that no teacher should ever feel completely responsible for one student I still feel crushed. The grade level and all the teachers that support that grade level own the test scores. We come together every 6-8 weeks to analyze student progress and refigure groups to meet student needs. These students are not just my responsibility, yet not only do I feel responsible for them, I also feel as though I've let the team down. I'm not sure that any student I worked with this year will pass the state testing. Forget about the fact that I worked with them because they were already below grade level. 

I'm thinking about merit pay and school sanctions and how ridiculous all of those carrot/sticks are in education. No additional incentive would have made me work harder for these children. I only wanted to give them the gift of reading on grade level so they could go of to middle school confident in their abilities. No sanction or poor performance review would have made me feel worse than I already do about the students' results. In fact, if I was given a poor review perhaps I could be angry at the system instead of at myself. 

I am thinking that I am not the only educator that feels this way. We got into this field to teach. You don't need to reward or threaten us to teach our students. We want them to succeed. Other teachers across the country are feeling the same way I am. What more could we have done?

I am thinking that I'll need a few days before I can focus on the successes we had, the small improvements, the increase in reading ability even if it will not be represented in the end of year scores. The fact that one of my students begs me for extra books and reads them practically overnight. Or that they want to stop while reading a book to analyze the characters and discuss the plot. Give me time and I'll appreciate those small victories.

I am thinking about next year and praying that these students will be OK. That the skills we worked on will carry with them to middle school and they will continue to grow in their abilities until they are working on grade level (or even above?) That their learning disabilities will not get in their way of doing whatever they want to accomplish in life.

I am thinking about the love I have for teaching and the frustrations I feel on a daily basis. I am wondering how to balance the two, and whether or not that balance is even possible. I am thinking about my role in these children's education, and the education field as a whole. 

I am thinking it is June, and hot, and that perhaps things will look better on the other side of summer vacation. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Where did the girls go? Why is it difficult to find children's books for preschoolers with girls as the main character?

When I first started my storytime connection newsletter* a friend commented that I should make a strong effort to use a balance of girl and boy main characters in my book selection. I filed the suggestion in the back of my mind but didn't give it much thought. I figured I would naturally be ale to find a balance of books for both genders and did not want the book selection to suffer because I was forcing myself to use books only because they were about a girl. Plus, I wanted to focus on actually writing the newsletter first before I got into political correctness. As the months have gone by and I'm getting more into the swing of writing the weekly newsletter I have been surprised by the lack of books with girls as main characters. I stumbled upon a great list of 11 children's books that pass the Bechdel test, but they are all chapter books for older readers. Forget the Bechdel test, I'm just looking for books where the main character is a girl. I don't care who she's talking to.

My book list so far has been Little Blue Truck (Blue is a boy, as evidenced in the gender pronouns), Dancing Feet (gender neutral so that one gets a pass), and Rhyming Dust Bunnies (all four dust bunnies have boy names). Even when the character's gender does not matter at all the authors seem to revert to using boy names or pronouns. Next month will be Shiver Me Letters, and as far as I can tell all the characters are boys. I have Alice the Fairy by David Shannon and A Busy Day on my list for upcoming books, but after that I am a bit stuck. Piggy in the Elephant and Piggy series is a girl, but while I love those books I have a hard time finding quality art and sensory activities to go along with them. The same goes for Knuffle Bunny.

I adore the Ladybug Girl and Fancy Nancy series, but those are for older readers who can sit for longer periods of time. As is Blueberries for Sal. I'm not a fan of the Olivia series so I am staying away from that. The baby in Good Dog Carl is actually a girl, which you don't learn unless you read later books about Carl when the baby grew up. I have to admit I was surprised to see the baby was a girl. Why is that?

The problem solidified itself when I started typing up some of the stories my four year old likes to tell. They are silly, nonsense stories but she loved the idea of seeing her words in print. Out of nowhere one day she asked "I want to see my story again. Will it be a boy saying it?" 
What? A boy saying it? I had to ask multiple clarifying questions to try to understand what she meant. Why would her story be about a boy? It turns out that somehow in her four year old logic she assumed once a story is typed up it magically becomes about a boy, or at least told by a boy.

The more I try to think of quality children's books for younger readers that feature a girl as the  main character, the more difficultly I have. Why is it that in the world of make believe animals and talking objects all of our heroes are boys? It seems we have come farther in gender equality in the real world than we have in the imaginary stories we share with our children. Do we assume that two and three year old boys will have absolutely no patience listening to stories about girls, while two and three year old girls will be perfectly content to listen to a story about a girl?

I would love any recommendations you have on books for preschool students who have a girl as the main character. For my newsletter I am usually looking for books with a simple plot line and a good rhythm or repeated lines to encourage active engagement.

*This winter I started a weekly literacy newsletter for young children. I take one book a month and each week send out a new activity to connect with the book. There is usually an art activity, a sensory activity, and recommendations on how to use the book to promote social/emotional development. If you are interested in subscribing to the newsletter you can sign up with this link. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

What we can learn from camera angles and instant replay

Over the weekend I caught a moment of the Yankees vs Red Sox game when the game was paused so the umpires could use instant replay to challenge whether or not a ball was foul or a home run. In order to fill the air time on TV while the powers that be determined the right call, the announcers replayed the hit over and over again from different camera angles. The first image I caught showed that the ball clearly fell to the left of the foul pole, making it a home run. I didn't understand how it could possible be called foul. Why was this even a question? I made rude comments about the umpires needing glasses. And then they showed the hit from another camera angle, one that made it look like the ball was clearly foul. I stopped babbling and just stared. How can one actual occurrence look so different depending on where you were in the stadium? After watching the first video angle I knew what I saw. I was 100% confident. Yet no more than 10 seconds later I saw it from another perspective that made me be completely unsure of where the ball fell.

How different events can look from alternate perspectives always amazes me. It's unnerving when you think about it for too long. How can you ever be completely sure that you've seen what you think you've seen?

I see this play out in special education almost every day. Except there is not any video replay to help us go back and analyze what we saw and view it from different perspectives. We need to rely on our colleagues to help us examine a situation from every angle. That's not easy. In order to be open to even realizing there are different perspectives out there we need to be able to acknowledge that our own perspective may not show us the full picture. This requires more than a bit of humility and a lot of trust for our colleagues.

If the decisions we make for kids come from a belief that we have the only right answer and everyone else is confused, lazy, or just plain wrong, we can miss out on seeing the full picture of the child. And that doesn't impact just one run on a scoreboard, but often can change a child's whole life.

I think about my reaction to the first video replay. Before I had the whole picture I was loud in my confidence. It seemed easy to say ridiculous things about the umpires and be critical of their call. Yet it did not take long for me to eat my words when I saw the other camera angle. How often in our lives do we talk critically about others but never get to see the other angle and we walk away before we fully understand the whole picture?

I struggle with two sides of this problem. I can see a situation from my own perspective and make judgmental statements about those involved. Yet I also can be quieted from others' loud convictions. Even when I see a perspective on a student that differs from the popular opinion I can struggle to share my view when others at the table are loud and confident in their views. I catch myself thinking that other people must be right if they are so loud about their beliefs and I keep quiet. Or worse, I decide that although I think my perspective is valuable, challenging the norm is too much work at the moment and again I stay quiet. In both instances, when I am loud and sure and when I stay quiet, kids lose. It's something I am working on daily.

Kids are complex. There is no way as a teacher to see every side of them. What we see in our classrooms is not the full picture. Our particular backgrounds and training lead us to draw one conclusion about a child's needs that could be very different than someone else's. When we act with open minds and listen to all perspectives at the table we can create extremely powerful teams for the child involved. But if we shut others down and assume our way is the only right way we limit the potential plans we create for our students. This can be devastating for kids - the ones who don't learn to read because the "right" way we are teaching them isn't working. Or the kids who end up in the office day after day because we are not looking at the student's behavior from another angle.

Special education often pushes us to make a decision about how to serve kids and then to stick by it. We come to a formal meeting and write plans on legally binding paperwork. We try to get everyone to agree that this is the right plan. Of course we could always come back together to change the plan, but that often involves another meeting and more paperwork. And sometimes that means admitting things were not as black and white as we want them to be.

We are so busy that sometimes it feels like we do not have the luxury to sit down and fully examine a situation. Yet when this happens we slip into making snap decisions and forgetting to see all sides and gather all of the pieces.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Damn Daniel? Vine? Huh?

As I was handing out scripts during drama club I noticed that one of the fifth graders had written "damn danile" in large letters across the top of her first page. I was surprised. The fifth grade itself was just coming out on the other end of a heavy bullying issue but this girl wasn't one that was involved. Did she somehow miss the message? It didn't seem like her, but why would she write that about a peer? I wasn't aware of anyone in the fifth grade named Daniel but there are some other names similar to it and with her misspelling I wasn't quite sure who she intended to be writing about.

The other teacher and I called her over and asked her why she'd written it. She looked at us like we were from another planet. "It's a vine" she explained, like that was all we needed to know.
"Huh?" the other teacher asked, "what's a vine?"

The girl started to look embarrassed, but maybe that was just being embarrassed for us. "Uh, it's a vine. You know, on the internet. A vine."

"Oh, a vine" I said, like I knew and I got out my phone to start googling the phrase. The teacher turned to me, "No really, what's a vine?"

"I've heard of it...."
I said slowly, "but I'm not sure, it's like, an internet video?" I sounded like a fifth grader myself. It's one of those words kids use? It's not something they talk about on my NPR podcasts.

OMG I'm old.

OH. Wow. My google search brought up a explanation for why the girl may have written damn danile on her paper. Apparently that's a thing. Like, a really big thing. Some guy walks around and his friend says "damn, Daniel" to him in a dramatic voice, commenting on how good he looks. In the type of voice one might take inspiration from in drama club.

Let's put aside the fact that I still don't understand why this catch phrase video thing posted on snap chat (which I also don't understand) would become an internet sensation. The mere fact that I don't know about something the rest of the world is talking about makes me start to feel like a bit of an outsider on this planet. How does one keep up with such craziness? Is there a Wikipedia entry for "things boring adults should know?" In fact, perhaps NPR should make a weekly podcast to catch us 30 somethings up on what we're obviously missing out on with the rest of the world because we are too busy listening to This American Life.

How are parents suppose to keep up with such things? I'm terrified of dealing with trying to keep up with everything as my kids get older. How on earth are you supposed to stay on top of what your child sees with all of the information flooding into your child's world? Sure, this is fairly innocent but what about everything that isn't so innocent? How do you keep up with that?

While I stood dumbly scrolling through the google search results, lost in a sea of popular content I'd somehow missed until this moment the other teacher explained to the girl that although this is a popular internet term it is not intended for school and is actually a bad word. She sent the girl back to her seat to cover up her writing. We spent the next five minutes staring at each other, wondering just how old and out of touch we'd become.

Friday, April 15, 2016

What they offer the world

During a lesson on determining the author's message the fifth graders sat mesmerized, their eyes glued to the smart board, reading along as their teacher read an article about the controversy with the term illegal aliens. They spontaneously gasped, cheered, and booed. The term seemed new to them, and their faces changed as some of them realized this term applied to their grandparents, parents, or themselves.

At the end one boy raised his hand. With a steady voice he quietly explained his frustration, ending with "When you use those words it makes people feel they have nothing to offer the world."

Offer the world. Every one of those children has something to offer the world. Their families have something to offer the world. I'm not sure I've ever heard such a simple yet true reasoning behind not using racist or derogatory terms.

Moments later I pulled my reading group with students from another class who read the same article. One girl, a typically happy, easy going child who has been in the country a year was shaking with anger. I have no idea if the term applies to her or not, but she explained that it would apply to her parents if they came to be with her. I'm not sure the last time she saw her mother and father who are still back in Africa. I can promise you that this girl has something to offer the world. With her desperation to learn everything she can and apply all her new knowledge to every situation around her, she is going to do great things. I'm pretty sure her parents have a lot to offer the world as well.

A map my first grade students made 10 years ago of where they were from.
I hadn't thought much about the term until that moment. I didn't know the Library of Congress had stopped using the term a few weeks ago, and I wasn't aware that the media was making an effort to stop using the term as well. If I am honest it seemed factual - it describes people who are not from here who are in the country illegally. But watching these fifth grade students' faces changed that. Factual or not, as the one boy said, "it makes people feel they have nothing to offer the world." We have some amazing people in this country. I don't care how they got here, but once they are here I'm pretty sure we want them to be their best selves.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Mommy Fears and Gaining Insight

I stood in the middle of the perfect preschool classroom and listened to the director talk about the importance of play, the small group, differentiated instruction the children receive, and the deliberate room set up to maximize child engagement. It was perfect. Except that three days a week the day is conducted in Spanish.

The director assured me that I would be amazed at my child's progress and how quickly she would pick up the language. She told me how sensitive the teachers are and how they would be in-tune to my daughter's comfort level. I nodded along because I've given the exact speech many times to parents - although always through the use of an interpreter. I know from my own first hand experience how quickly children pick up another language. It's mind blowing to watch young children adapt and learn English. I tell parents all the time that they have given their child the gift of knowing two languages. 

But my own daughter?

It's stunning to be on the other side and realize just what those parents are feeling. I always knew the parents were worried but this isn't an emotion that can be described through one word. It is gnawing feeling deep in the gut, along with a panicked and desperate need to protect my child. I cannot imagine dropping my baby off to a place where they are not speaking English. To just walk away and leave her there to figure out what they are saying, desperately hoping she will know enough to follow the rules and make friends.*

I am in awe of the parents of the children I teach. They have no choice but to send their child off every day to an English speaking school. And we aren't a bilingual program designed to nurture your child's dual language development. We are pretty much straight English and if the child is lucky people nearby may know some of the child's language in order to communicate in those first few days.

We talk about a silent period students go through when they first enter English speaking schools. I know enough of this to accept it and chalk it up as normal. But to ask my own child to go through a silent period in school? Nothing could possibly seem more wrong. When it is my daughter it does not seem normal, it seems cruel. And my husband and I have a choice. We can choose this for our daughter (and we might, for a variety of reasons. She loves the idea and is currently obsessed with Spanish although she knows about three words. I can recognize my fears come from the same place as when I gasp whenever she eats a whole grape or is on an extra tall playground) 

Standing there inside my almost-dream preschool classroom I was flooded with mommy-anxiety mixed with awe for the parents I work with. In many cases they gave up the comfort and familiarity of their former lives to come to America and to ask their children to go to school in a place where they won't understand the language. Sending their child off to a school where they do not speak the language is a better situation than where they came from. My nervousness about Spanish three days a week for a year seems minuscule compared to the life decisions they have already faced. 

I probably will continue to reassure parents of how quickly their child will pick up English and how much they will love school, yet it will never again be a rehearsed speech that I give without thinking. 

*I don't write this to sound anti-bilingual education. Cognitively I realize that we would be giving my daughter a gift. In many ways this is the perfect situation and we are considering it. I am writing this to recognize how my own internal mommy-fears must also be what other parents feel, yet on a broader scale.