Wednesday, May 26, 2010

what's your sticky note say?

When I walked into my first grade classroom today I immediately noticed something strange-Every child had a note paper clipped to their shirt with one or two descriptive words.

"Good artist"

"Hard worker"



I wondered what they were up to. We teach writing in the afternoon, so it couldn't have been a lesson on using descriptive words.

I finally asked and quickly learned that it was a part of my awesome co-teacher's morning meeting. She had the children pair up and share something they liked about their partner. Noticing how nice the comments were, she decided to write them down for them, thinking they could tape them to their desks. But, she explained, having them wear them seemed so much better.

It was.

I sat down to begin the reading focus lesson and looked out at their happy labels. Sure one kid was playing with his shoe, but the minute my mind went to being annoyed, I saw the label "funny". I smiled, remembering the comic book the boy wrote a few weeks ago. Yeah, he is funny. No longer seeing him as annoying-shoe-boy, but instead as a funny, bright first grader, I returned to looking at the whole group- a sea of positive sticky notes.

I love this idea for a morning meeting activity, and love that my friends spent the rest of the day with their happy notes pinned to their chests even more. Their own character trait became a badge of honor to wear proudly.

At the end of the day one came to visit me at my desk before he left.

"Mrs. Lipstick," he began earnestly, "I'm a Hard Worker." He tapped his note as though to prove it. And with that, he left to catch his bus, walking with a little more pride in his step.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


There are some families in our school who have become notorious for needing extra-special love and care for working with their children. These families all tend to have many siblings in different grades, making almost every teacher in the school come into contact with a family member in one way or another. These are the families whose parents are difficult to get a hold of, or when you do manage to track them down they give you fabulous one-liners like,

"Condoms? You found condoms in my first grader's backpack? I don't know where he got those- we don't use them at our house!"


"what do you want me to do? Tell her what to do? I'm her mother."


"I'd be happy to come in and have a parent conference. Let me just get a pen and write down that time. Oh look- I don't have a pen. Nope, no pen in the whole house. Too bad, I really wanted to meet with you."

Most of these parents truly want the best for their children, but are overwhelmed with their jobs, their many children, trying to pay rent, feed their families, and stay above water. These are the children who rarely do homework, tend to need to repeat kindergarten, and need to spend a lot of time with the guidance counselors. They are sweet, wonderful children, whose lives just haven't exposed them to good problem solving strategies, immersed them in language and literacy, or prepared them for school's academic environment. Many of them come to kindergarten able to wash dishes, cook food, and translate for their parents' at the hospital, but have little idea of how to spell their name.

Today, during kindergarten free choice I walked by the youngest members of one of these families. He looked up at me with his bright kindergarten smile and said, "Hey, want to come to our show?"
Quickly he explained that he was getting his friends to put on a Knuffle Bunny Play like his brother had seen on Friday when the first grade went on a field trip. He was directing a whole of children around him to take part in preparing for "the show".

I smiled, said "of course" and then asked him what his brother told him about the play.

Turns out, the brother had the family spend the weekend re-enacting Knuffle Bunny The Musical over and over again.

The family who seems to never turn in homework, avoids parent-teacher conferences like the plague, has let us know that academics are not nearly as important as their children's survival- the children in that family spend the weekend acting out a book, not because it was homework, but because they wanted to.

I died. The first grader in question is the most notorious of this particular family, and the one brother who spent the most time meeting with our fabulous administration. The one who acts like he, at 6, is way too cool for this school stuff. Yet he organized the rest of his brothers to put on a play- a play he'd seen in school- a play based off a book.

On Friday I wrote about how awesome our field trip was, and how much the kids got out of it, and that it was an event they would remember forever. But to be honest, I didn't expect anybody who wasn't already an avid reader to go home and bring the play home to his family.

We can talk all about data collection, high standards, merit pay, accountability, and student outcomes until we've exhausted the subject, but until we find the spark for each of these kids- until we are able to inspire our most troubled learners, no real reform will take place. It's events like our Friday adventure that allow children to connect with the world, and motivate the learners we are so desperately trying to teach.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Manufacturing children

Right as I was slipping out the door today I happened to catch a glimpse of this week's Forbes (Mr. Lipstick decided to take a break from the Economist and subscribe to Forbes for a year since it was free, and the Economist is $$$. Personally, I miss the Economist).
Regardless, this week's Forbes is sporting a lovely cover page of a school black board, with a chalk message that reads, "
What Schools Can Learn From Money Management".
So, of course, I had to read it.
I actually opened it with the hope that, maybe, it would actually have good suggestions- new suggestions- that can be added to the education debate. I'm sure money management groups are doing great things, so sure, maybe we can learn from them! Teach me something new!

It didn't take me long to learn there wasn't anything new to teach. We've all read the article before, no matter who wrote it, or in where it was published. It's that familiar ode to the charter school movement, holding them up as the promise of how we will save the failing education system in this country. In comparison, without mentioning public schools at all, it paints us public school teachers as the lazy union card-holding folks who are in teaching for the summer breaks and believe in holding our children back because they come from "bad"neighborhoods.

It doesn't say that of course, but that's what I infer from what it doesn't say.

The article does what every charter school article does- it praises charter schools with lists and lists of examples of the ways charter schools are revolutionizing education. Except, none of the revolutionary practices are different than what we do in the public school. Somehow, just because a practice happens within the walls of a charter school, it's revolutionary. Within the walls of a public school it's lazy, and traditional.

Some of it's descriptions of these amazing charter schools include:
"Teachers receive higher salaries- and help. Brownsville Elementary backs 23 teachers up with five administrators, including deans and 'coaches'. "
OK, we don't have 5 administrators, but we do have 3 administrators and 6 coaches at my school. (and OK, we have a lot more than 23 teachers). Ironically, earlier in the article the author bashes public schools who give too many resources to administration and do not put it into the classroom. Exactly what is the difference between an administrator in a public school and an administrator in a charter school? Somehow the charter school administrator is so much more valuable that they are not considered a waste of resources. 5 administrators for 23 teachers? What do they do all day? I hope they're administering the tests to the kids so that the teachers actually get to teach.

Another miracle of the charter schools:

"Children in kindergarten through second grade are given a one-on-one reading comprehension test every six weeks and graded on a scale of 1 to 12. If the entire class struggles with a concept, McCurry says "we can go back and re-teach that." If an individual student falls behind, the school pulls them out into separate groups for intensive instruction on their individual weak points. The lessons can be delivered on a computer or during lunchtime tutoring session: the3 important thing is that teachers and administrators are constantly watching and adjusting their methods as test results come in."

What do they think we do all day in public schools? Paint pretty, pretty pictures and dance in the daisies? Do they believe public school teachers all operate under the understanding that our children learn by osmosis?

We too give one-on-one reading comprehension tests. Not every 6 weeks, (we don't have 5 administrators so bored they have nothing else to do) but we are constantly analyzing our kids progress through running records and anecdotal notes when we are not administering one-on-one assessments. We have computer programs we use to support instruction, and can determine what a child will learn on the computer based on our assessment of the child's instructional needs. We re-group students frequently to make sure we are meeting their needs on a daily basis. My partner in crime develops math, reading, and writing groups every 2 weeks and gives each group a focus based on the children's needs and strengths.

Another miracle:
"Using Palm handhelds or Web browsers, teachers can input results of, say, a kindergarten reading comprehension test that requires students to pronounce three-letter nonsense words."
(let me pause here- if a student is reading a nonsense word then it cannot be a reading comprehension test. Unless charter schools have the miraculous ability to teach children how to make sense of words like fip, or merm, then it is a decoding test).

"The software can differentiate causes of failure, distinguishing between students who are too slow and those who make errors; it can also flag kids who don't blend letter sounds together. Then it prompts the teacher to group children at similar developmental stages together and provides proven instructional techniques for their particular problems".

Wow, that software can do exactly what I was hired to do as a teacher. But I, and my think-tank coworkers, can do it without the additional software. I don't know what's happening inside charter schools, but in public schools we don't need a palm pilot to tell us how to analyze the errors are students make, remind us how to create leveled groups, or create lessons that teach to particular problems.

Miracles never cease...
"Beyond frontline training it stresses evidence-based methods in the classroom. Teachers watch videos of themselves and colleagues to find what works- and how to knead effective practices into their own instruction"

Ummmm.... yes, yes, we lazy public school teachers also do this one too. We video tape ourselves, analyze it, ask colleagues to observe us, we observe colleagues, we reflect on our lessons, we combine what we observe with our student data to determine how best to teach the students.

Then there are the charter school miracles that confuse me because I don't see them as miracles...

"Roughly 10% to 15% of its teachers quit each year; another 5% or so are fired for poor performance, compared with 9% attrition and 4.4% dismissal rates for public schools."

So, basically you're telling me that more teachers burn out at these schools, or quit to move on with their "real career", but they manage to only fire .6% more "bad teachers" than public schools. Did I read that wrong? Is it a good thing that teachers are quitting? And aren't charter schools suppose to be revolutionizing getting rid of bad teachers?

Wait- having teachers quit is a good thing...

"Achievement First and its peers rely on young, inspired teachers coming out of training programs like Teach for America". Read: recent college graduates with no teacher training, who will work for pennies before they move on to their real careers.

The article also states that Cisco Systems, Google, and billionaire Michael Dell support these charter schools who are using specialized computer instruction. Of course they do! That's like saying pencil manufactures support the use of pencils and pencil-friendly paper. The more you can support a demand for your product, or a product you may be able to work with, the more your own product will be successful.

*** I'm coming off sounding much more bitter than I intend, but I can't help being frustrated as I read the article. Instead of discussing new ideas, or even reflecting a true look at how the money managers can impact school policy, the article only served as a cheerleader for charter schools.

I'm tired of charter schools being hailed as the answer, when most of the time we are doing exactly the same thing in public schools. We use data to drive our instruction every single day. We analyze our children's needs and adapt our instruction to make them successful. We reflect on our teaching, we collaborate together, we seek out best practice, we use technology to support growth. I'm not standing up and saying charter schools don't work- I'm just saying that just because a school has been repackaged and re-branded doesn't mean it is automatically better or any different than other schools.

I was hoping Forbes would be more reflective and more insightful than this. I miss the Economist....

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Revisiting Success

In March I wrote about one of my little ones who was struggling to learn her letters. From August until March we were working on differentiating between the letters c and e, trying to get her brain to recognize that because of that small line in between the e, they were not the same letter. In order to teach her I had to keep taking my instruction and dividing in half- going back to the most basic skills at ever step.

I wrote about how long it took her to learn the 9 letters in her name, the steps we took to teach them to her, and how, although we are proud of her progress, we wondered if there was room for such basic fundamental instruction in a high-stakes testing environment.

And yet... now she knows almost all of her letters and their sounds. Because of the strong foundation we gave her with those first few letters, she learned the rest of her letters quickly, not needing the heavy direct instruction we used in the beginning. If you say a word she can, 85% of the time, identify the initial sound and the letter that makes that sound. She makes more progress every day. We created a learner.

We lay the foundation she needed, and taught the child. And she made more progress than we thought was possible.

We taught the child.

Now, how can I do that for every child on my caseload? How can I teach to what they need, so that they have the tools and the foundation to truly learn?

Friday, May 21, 2010

weather channel similes

Remember our weather man?

Today he informed my co-teacher that his heart was beating like a severe thunder storm warning.

There is something to be said for having an obsession and then relating it to everything else in your life.

Aggle, Flabble, Klabble

If those words mean something to you, then you're going to be oh-so-jealous of how I spent my day.

In my last post I mentioned I was ready to enjoy kids as kids instead of only seeing them as test subjects. Today my wish was granted.

Jenny, in a fit of brilliant inspiration last fall, managed to get our whole first grade tickets to Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Musical, at the Kennedy Center. We've been waiting for this day for what seems like forever, and today we finally boarded all 140 first graders onto buses and ventured into DC for the literary experience of a lifetime.

Yesterday my fabulous co-teacher and I played up the wonders of the Kennedy Center, just to make sure the kids fully understood that we weren't just going to any old play- we would be viewing a play in a "very fancy place" as we put it. We looked at pictures and ohhhhed and awwwwed at the red carpets and fancy lights.

Today, when our first graders marched into the school in their nicest dresses and dress shirts, we knew they'd taken our fancy-talk seriously. One, who dressed like a gangster for school pictures, informed me that it was her only dress, and she'd owned it since she was 4 but had never worn it. But today, she'd clearly decided, was dress-worthy.

On the bus ride I heard multiple kiddos tell me their DC stories- detail accounts of the sights they saw on their trips into DC to visit family members- the gang signs, the unsafe streets, the people on corners, the smell. "It's not safe" two boys told me, most likely concerned that we were so excited about taking the entire first grade into such a dangerous place. It took multiple teachers to calm them down and promise them that the part of the city we were going to did not have gangs, violence, or a disgusting smell.

They calmed down even more as the bus neared the Potomac. Throughout the bus we could hear gasps of excitement. "What a beautiful place!" the Story Teller exclaimed. I think riding the bus with kids around DC is one of the best experiences- there is so much to see. I tried to listen respectfully as multiple children explained to me, as though I didn't know, what the Washington Monument was and why it was named after this guy George, our first president, don't you know?

I was rather enjoying myself as we drove along and I pointed out landmarks until we passed the Watergate. Without missing a beat I pointed it out and started into a "this is an important place because..." and then I stopped. How do you explain to a first grader why the Watergate is important? "You'll learn about that building later" was all I could come up with. I did not mention how ridiculously over priced the Safeway inside the Watergate is, nor did I mention the creepy homeless man who hangs out near the corner. I tried to keep to the more generic landmarks the best I could.

But then... we arrived. And as awesome as riding a bus through DC with first graders is, it's nothing compared to sitting with them to watch Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Musical.

First of all, the musical itself was fabulous. It was so well done and they managed to pull out underlying themes in the book through the songs. Trixie even sings an entire ballad in her Aggle Flaggle words. How does it not get better than that? There are visits from the pigeon, a spin cycle fight, a dream sequence, and a giant pair of dancing underpants.

The best part was the celebration of the books inside the play. I mean, every kid in the theater knew that book by heart, and could completely appreciate the drama unfolding on stage. They also could pick up on visits from Mo's other book characters, or when he borrowed lines from his other stories ("Just once around the block?") and had a character say "Wait, wrong book!" The book-geek in me loved the literary references, even if they were for children's books. Getting to share those sort of literary inside jokes with first graders- is that not heaven? Were we not setting the stage, right there, that books are to be loved, song, danced, laughed, and joked about?

I enjoyed it even more because I was sitting between my two friends from last week's field trip, The Story Teller and Eyebrows. And, just like last week, I was peppered with both of their comments. The Story Teller clapped with utter joy and delight as the play began. "I love this day!" he said, over and over again. He took time after each joke to let me know there had been a joke. "That was a joke Mrs. Lipstick!" he'd say in a loud whisper. "That was funny!" Eyebrows liked to keep me informed of what was real and what wasn't. "That's not real underwear" he'd say, pointing to the boxer shorts large enough to be used as a bed spread. And of course, when Trixie and her Daddy leave beloved-Knuffle Bunny in the washing machine, both boys, along with every other child in the audience, desperately screamed at the stage, "Don't forget Knuffle Bunny!" as though they could somehow prevent the horror of what was about to take place.

Once the play began it occurred to me that although we'd discussed The Kennedy Center and we'd re-read Mo Willem's books, we hadn't actually talked about what a musical is like. The minute the first song ended and the audience clapped two children near me gasped. "It's over already?" they asked, horrified. I hurriedly tried to explain how audiences clap during musicals, but neither child looked convinced. Throughout the rest of the show, despite the fact both children had the book memorized, every time a song ended and someone clapped both children looked depressed, as though they thought the Kennedy Center was going to just end the story in the middle, with Knuffle Bunny lost forever in the washing machine.

They all became completely engulfed in the play itself. The minute the actors made a reference to their imaginary environment, like "look, a fire truck driving by" and pointed to the back of the theater, the entire audience turned around to look, as though the actors were pointing at a fire truck headed straight into the family theater at the Kennedy Center.

We'd also forgotten to mention the heavy folding seats that few first graders are heavy enough to keep in a seated position by merely sitting. I watched children struggle to keep their weight forward, but inevitably, in a moment of distraction, they'd shift their weight and the seat would snap up into a folded position, enveloping them inside. Some fought a good fight the whole play, while others gave up, and made themselves comfortable sandwiched in the seat.

When it ended every child sat back and smiled. "That was great!" the Story Teller exclaimed. "Mrs. Lipstick, did you enjoy that? I sure did!"

As we were leaving one girl took my hand, "That was the second best movie ever" she said, "It was almost as good as Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakel."

Although I was quick to explain the difference between a movie and a play, I think that's a pretty high compliment coming from a first grader.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I think I love my job

When you teach in an elementary school you can have bad days because you've been thrown up on or peed on, or you had to clean up some horrid bathroom accident. You can have a bad day because your kids' behavior was out of control, or you had one kiddo who threw a tantrum to beat all tantrums. You can have a bad day because a parent is upset with you, or an administrator corrects you.

But those bad days at least have an incident to point to. Something you can say, "wow, that sucked, but tomorrow- tomorrow will be better".

Today was not one of those bad days.

Today was the type of bad day where you can't put your finger on what's wrong, but you know something isn't right. The type of bad day where something sits uncomfortably in your stomach, dread for something you don't yet know exists.

We're in the throws of testing- SOL testing, DRA testing, MRA testing,- testing, testing testing. Every moment of the day is spent either administering some sort of assessment to a child, or desperately teaching trying to get every last morsel of learning in before another assessment. It's not going well.

Is there anything worse than watching the children you've worked so hard with for so long- children you've spent months carefully teaching, planning, analyzing, re-teaching, reflecting, and supporting, bomb their end of year assessment? All that careful, dedicated work comes down to one moment, where suddenly, it feels like you might as well have played movies all day.

There is nothing more demoralizing than watching a child fail an assessment you'd been determined you'd get him to pass. You wonder some productive questions- what could I have changed in my instruction? What could be better next year? What didn't work? and then you wonder the not so good questions- why did I work so hard? Why did I even bother? Should I have changed my instruction to meet the test? How can I get around particular score traps on the test next year?

And the kids sense our frustration. Our tightened breath, our fists, our grinding teeth- without meaning to we're giving our stress to them and it's playing out in their behavior, their academic work, and how they interact with one another. None of it's good.

Outside our school walls the world seems to be screaming at teachers- saying we're not trying hard enough- we're lazy, we need to be punished or threatened or fired or tested some more to make us work harder. It feels like the world is against us. Inside our walls- where we've silenced those screaming voice, put our heads down and taught our hearts out- but we're not feeling much better.

I look at my readers- the ones I was so determined to get to grade level- and I feel I've let them down. Them, their parents, the school, my co-teachers. What happened?

But then I think back to my post a few weeks ago about how I could feel myself switching from teaching the reader toward teaching to the test- and- although I wrote about how I wouldn't change, I still did.

I let the test consume me, and I stopped supporting them as readers. In the last few weeks I haven't given them the tools they need to keep developing as readers over the summer. I wasn't focused on making life-long readers. I was focused on getting them to pass a certain level book in two weeks. Instead of being happy with where they were as readers and working on helping them obtain the next step, I tried too hard to bridge too many gaps at once. I pushed, without giving them support. I only thought about the score on the test- not the skills they'd practice over the summer, or the skills they would take with them to 2nd grade. Their score on the test, at this point in their life, means nothing compared to what it means to be a strong, life-long reader. How did I forget that?

But how, with the testing culture, do we remind ourselves to look at the growth they made, the skills they have, and their learning potential that exists because of the foundation we built? How do we silence the voice that screams we are suppose to have high expectations (expectations that are measured by a one-time assessment?)

While I administered a reading assessment this afternoon I watched one child glare at me over her book box. She tracked me with her eyes, her anger clear from across the room. She wants a reading group- and she's wanted one for a week. But- she's a high reader. We're not worried about her passing the test. She doesn't need last minute practice. So she hasn't had a turn in a week. HOW TERRIBLE IS THAT? I've taken a kid who loves, LOVES reading and used it against her. All because of the test. I never thought I'd be that teacher.

I'm ready for this testing season to be over. I'm ready to see children as children and not as testing subjects. I'm ready to see teachable moments and not test failures. I'm ready to laugh with children instead of grinding my teeth as they struggle through an easy task.

I'm ready to love my job again.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reading- The most important thing in the world

Yesterday Mr. Lipstick and I attended a World Poverty & Economics lecture at our church (The glory of living in the DC area is that our fellow church members have big important jobs as economists at the places that actually produce the research that impacts policy.)

The entire discussion was fascinating, but I was struck by one slide. It discussed two important factors countries need to pull themselves out of poverty- the existence of a strong education/health care/social welfare network along with the right incentive structure & free market system for companies to bring economic growth to the country.

The room began to fall into a debate on which side was more important- the liberal church members leaning toward the importance of social welfare networks, and the more conservative members leaning toward the importance of the free markets. Both sides had valid points to make, and many were able to cite research to back up their points. Finally the Economist leading the discussion stepped in and brought the discussion back to the importance of both elements-

Countries with strong social welfare systems but do not allow private companies to grow do not pull themselves and their citizens out of poverty, which in turn means they do not have enough resources to actually provide their citizens with the social programs they'd like to provide- no money for education, health care, and welfare.

On the flip side, he went on, what has made countries like China be able to grow is that their citizens had a firm literacy base so that they were able to be able to access the resources the companies provided with their free market resources. When citizens could read they became a work force, could understand how to take care of themselves, and found benefits in the products being produced- if you can't read you don't have much use for an ipod, or other such gadgets.

In order for countries to pull themselves out of poverty- they must have literacy- they must be able to read.

Teaching reading- reading- truly is the strongest weapon to change the world. My little friend the other day who argued that "reading saves lives" knew what she was talking about.

I'm sure I'm not doing the discussion justice particularly with my last econ class almost 10 years behind me, but I don't think it changes the message about literacy.

It kind of makes me want to run out there, grab the nearest kid and start teaching them to read.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dear Arne- please regulate cheap carnivals

Dear K-Mart Carnival,
I hate you. Don't take it personally- I've never actually been to your carnival, but you really make my life, my co-workers' lives, and my school's life much, much harder. Every year you come in May.
And our families,who love you, spend late nights out (school nights, SCHOOL NIGHTS!) enjoying your adventures, because after all, it's the once-a-year carnival.

This would be fine if it was June. Or July.

Do you know what happens in May?
Testing happens in May.
The kindergartners need a good night sleep because they are taking the K-MRA math assessment, The DRA2- reading assessment, the DRA-2 Word Analysis reading assessment, as well as other assessments we throw in for fun. The first and second graders are also taking the MRA and DRA math and reading assessments.
The 3rd, 4th and 5th graders- they're taking the MRA, DRA AND our state testing. You know, those high stake tests that determine whether or not we're labeled a failing school or not.


And yet, all our hard work, all our dedication, our excellent lessons, our perfectly timed instruction, well-planned analysis, the hours spent planning, hours of analyzing data, reflecting, and teaching- all for nothing because our kids stayed out way too late the night before at the carnival.

There is nothing like sitting down with a kid to administer one of these one-on-one assessments and watch them struggle to keep their eyes open.
"What's this letter?" you ask, and watch one eye close.
"Ummmm" the kid says, barely looking at the paper, and kind of leaning to the left as though he might fall off the chair.
"UMMMM... k?" he whispers, still not looking at the letter. Despite the fact that the letter you are pointing to is not a K, and is in fact, the first letter in this child's name, AND is the only letter the child knew when he started school in the fall.
"What time did you go to bed last night?" you can't help but ask.
"I don't know, after the carnival closed. I think the car clock said 1."

So, you see, K-Mart Carnival, I think you are single handily bringing down the American education system. Our tired kids will fail, despite the fact they know the information when they are not operating on 3 hours of sleep. We will not make AYP, which means we'll have to change our instruction. We'll take our previously fabulous instruction and make it more drill & kill, in hopes that method will work. And it wont, because next May your carnival will be back, and once again our students will not be able to recognize their names. Can you please, please schedule your carnivals so they do not correspond with testing?

Is that too much to ask?
Mrs. Lipstick

First Grade Nature Walk

Yesterday was our first field trip of the year in first grade. (We get two a year, and we saved them for spring- to enjoy the nature center and then, next week, we get to experience Knuffle Bunny, The Musical. I am SO excited).

I positioned myself with the Story Teller, selfishly because I knew I'd personally enjoy the field trip more if I was able to hear his commentary throughout the event. And of course, he didn't disappoint-

The minute he saw he me said in a flat, serious voice, "Hello, Mrs. Lipstick, I am no longer The Story Teller. You can call me..." (dramatic pause) "Dr. Cockroach".

As we walked outside to the bus he noticed a police car sitting in front of our school. He shook his fist. "I don't like those police interrupting our field trips!"

On the bus ride he turned around in his seat and yelled, "Quiet down children, it's a bit loud in here." Then he looked at me sheepishly, and said, "Oh, sorry, that's right- you're the teacher."

We arrived at the nature center and walked down the path, passing a man gardening.
"Wow, good garnering there"

On the way out he attached himself to another friend's little brother who'd joined us on the trip. "Say Godzilla" he demanded, and the 4 year old buried his head into his brother's back, partly because he was shy, partly because he had an older boy barking words at him, and partly because the poor little one only spoke Russian.
"Say T-Rex"
"Say Monster Truck"
After a pause the Story Teller looked at me and said, "Nope, he can't talk at all. This one has no words."

And of course, throughout the walk, he turned into a T-Rex, pulling his hands in front of his body and making dino-like growls as he marched through the woods, clearly in his own imaginary world, not worrying that the rest of us were even around him.

Because The Story Teller spent 2 years in kindergarten this was my 5th field trip with him. How am I suppose to go on field trips next year without him? I'll be so bored! Maybe he should do another year in first grade just to keep me entertained.

Along with The Story Teller I was stayed close to another friend, whose statements of the obvious are always very similar to The Story Teller. I adore this child in all his earnest impulsively. This is the little one, who after hearing the read-aloud Tikki-Tikki-Tembo raised his hand and gave a long talk about how when he was living in Afghanistan, where they didn't have any electricity, and had to go over mountains on a donkey to get water, someone fell down the well and had to be rescued. At the end of his monologue he scrunched up his face and said, "I think it was me."
"You think it was you?"
"Well, yeah, I was a baby, so I don't know, but my parents told me, it was me. I was down there for a long time and they were scared because they couldn't get me out. But I only think it was me- I don't know."

Hmmmm. That could explain a lot...

We walked through the woods- the Story Teller on one side of me darting his eyes around feverishly like T-Rex, looking for small dinos to eat. My other friend elbows me, as though we're high schoolers. "Psst" he whispers, "look out for the snipers".
"Friend, there are no snipers here, this is a safe forest" I say.
"No, shhhh.... this is where they hide so no one sees them." he argues, and moves one eye brow up and down rapidly, as though he's delivering some sort of flirtatious information instead of telling me to fear for my life.

The rest of the trip went on in the same manner. Time after time he'd elbow me and then whisper some sort of misinformation, followed with the eyebrows. Sometimes he'd just repeat what the guide said, as though I myself hadn't heard. I started to feel like I was being hit on by a 7 year old.

After the guide talked to us for awhile about tadpoles and repeatedly answered the same question over and over again, ("Yes, those are going to be frogs. Yes, frogs. Frogs- yep, that's what I said already") it was obvious he'd reached his limit with first grade questions.

Eyebrows raised his hand. "Did you know," he asked our guide, "I have bed bugs at my home."
The guide, clearly fed up with us and our off-topic responses, merely said, "Oh, cool" and called on the next friend. I felt an elbow tapping me.
"Hey," he whispered, "I just told him I have bed bugs, and he said COOL. It is NOT COOL. It is NOT!" he whispered indigently.
"We can't get rid of them. They are everywhere. And I vacuum every day. And the apartment people keep leaving us notes telling us to be clean, but I think they lie because WE ARE CLEAN and the bugs still wont go away. They are still there. We can't sit on our couch, or our carpet. And we have cockroaches too. The apartment people spray for them, but they never go away either." He shook his head, clearly not impressed with our guide who seemed to be embracing the very nature that was driving his family crazy.

I couldn't think, at that moment, how to separate the nature we were learning about with the nature in his house. Nor could I shake the idea that while I've been desperately trying to get us to meet the end of year benchmark in reading, his family's been dealing with that mess, all the while making sure he does his homework every night in between scrubbing their house for the bugs they can't get rid of.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Bloomers

Yesterday when I arrived home a bright white Kodak envelope was waiting for me by my door, kindly welcoming me home. I have a small obsession with pictures, and at this point I think I may be keeping Kodak in business all by myself.

This package held a compilation of pictures I'd taken years ago- so long ago that the little first grade subjects in the pictures are about to take their 5th grade state tests and then leave us for middle school. I ripped open the large envelope before even putting my bag down and stood in my doorway flipping through the happy pictures of my kiddos investigating seeds, baking cupcakes, taking part in centers, reading books to stuffed animals, and playing at recess. They were an incredible class.

We'd named ourselves The Bloomers that year, after totally bonding with Leo, The Late Bloomer. If you are not familiar with Leo I highly recommend you find your way to the nearest children's library and meet Leo who can't do anything right when compared to his friends. His father worries about him, but his mother keeps reminding his dad that "a watched bloomer doesn't bloom". And then, at the end of the book, in his own good time, Leo blooms.

It's one of my favorite children's books of all times. And the perfect comparison for our class. That year I had a large percentage of children with special needs, along with a large percentage of children who'd been retained in kindergarten or were in their 2nd year of first grade. It was an old bunch- and although we weren't academically advanced we were quick on our street sense. This was the year I had two children from the middle east- one from Pakistan but who'd also lived in Iraq, and one from Iran. They frequently got into heated debates over whose country had nuclear weapons.... always a fun way to start morning meeting.

The class, with its quirky personalities, quickly bonded and truly took on the name The Bloomers. The whole year become dedicated to blooming as a team. It was an amazing classroom community.

So much of a community that they kept having difficulties on the playground. Not with each other, but with the 4th graders who shared the playground with us. There were some 4th graders that year in the special education program who seemed to seek out my first graders at recess. It may have been to pick on them, but most likely it was because they felt more comfortable with smaller children. However, my children were so street smart and weary that they'd quickly defend one another from any "attack" they believed to be happening against a fellow Bloomer. One day a gang of my first graders managed to de-shoe one of these 4th graders (not one with special needs) and throw the shoe over the large fence around our playground- right into poison ivy. There was frequent ball-stealing, (some of this was because I had kids with wicked soccer skills and the 4th graders would get upset when my 6 year olds stole the soccer ball from them fair and square). Once it even escalated to rock throwing. My six year olds, throwing rocks at the big kids. Oh yes, I was so proud.

None of this was ok. Sure the 4th graders were starting it, but my kids were not just defending themselves. They were retaliating like a small gang. They'd taken the idea of community a bit too far.

After weeks of long lectures from me and the principal, class conferences where we discussed positive problem solving behaviors, lost privileges, a class book called "we don't want bullies on our playground", and some agonizing time with heads down on tables, I realized nothing was working. The behavior wasn't changing. So, after a chat with the guidance counselor, one day I decided to skip math after recess. Instead we held a class meeting and wrote a letter to the 4th graders about what was happening. I can't remember the exact wording (I so wish I'd taken a picture) but I think it covered the fact that we knew we weren't making good choices at recess, but we needed them to help us because we were smaller than them. I think we gave specific examples of what we could do to share the soccer ball, and how we'd promise to not hit or kick them, if they made sure they would not hit or kick us.

The discussion about the letter within my classroom was amazing. For the first time my kids really took responsibility for a problem that I thought we'd already covered in every way possible. The difference was- this time, instead of me lecturing them, I was including them on solving the problem. We were also acknowledging that they were not the only ones at fault- which allowed them to see it was a problem to be fixed instead of something they were getting in trouble for. Instead of being lectured they were able to examine the situation with new eyes.

Then, we made an appointment with the fourth grade teachers to come read our letter to them. We quietly made our walk over there, and I tried not to make this feel like a reward- they were, after all, still in trouble for fighting. I planned to have my class just read the letter and then leave. But one of my students had a different idea.

After we stood in front of the 4th grade class and read our heart-felt letter, one of my little girls loudly said, "Yeah!" and cleared her throat. All 4th grade eyes turned and stared at her.
"You need to think" she said, projecting her small voice to the back of the room, her chest puffing out like a bird, "when you look in the mirror in the morning, you need to say to yourself, 'Who do I want to be today? Do I want to be somebody who bullies little kids? No! Do I want to be that person? You need to wake up and realize what you can do. This is your life, and you have to make these choices. You. Only you can decide who you are."

We were silent. This little one had some of the weakest English skills among our friends, yet somehow, today she found the words- all the words- for this lecture. She even whipped out her finger and shook it at the 4th graders.
"We're just little kids" she continued, "And you're so big. You don't even know how big you are. You need to decide how you'll be"

It was the most inspirational speech I'd heard in a long time. I immediately wanted to be a better person myself.

I have no idea where her speech came from. She'd always shown a flair for the dramatic in the classroom, but this was something new.

I can't say we never had recess problems again, but they significantly lessened after our peace-conference with the older kids. Both parties- my class and the 4th graders- were now working together to prevent recess scuffles. We were finally on the same page.

Four years later now The Bloomers are the big kids- the ones who have to share their playground with the younger students. They are patrols, helping first graders get to class, and proudly walking through our hallways as though they own the school.

They've bloomed.

Luckily I have photographic evidence of how small they use to be, and plan to share it with them at graduation, just so they can appreciate exactly how far they've come.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

the booger

I looked over today after a particularly grueling reading lesson to see the largest, most disgusting booger I have ever seen sitting proudly on the table.

It was practically looking at me. Like it wanted a guided reading book too.

How long has that been there? I wondered. Am I suppose to get rid of it? Can I just walk away and leave it for splattypus to clean up?

I glanced around the room. Will anyone see if I duck outside quickly?

I looked at it again and gagged.

I have my masters in education. I'm starting my phd in the fall. I could have gone to law school. In law school, I would not have to share my work space with large boogers.

The other day my undergraduate class news letter arrived. My classmates from college are off starting companies, announcing games for ESPN, becoming heads of their firms, clerking for this important judge or that important person, etc. etc. No where in the news letter did it mention large boogers.

I am going to get my phd to set myself on the track of spending even more time with other children's large boogers. What am I thinking?

Then I think about the book another child gave me that morning.

"All About Mrs. Lipstick" was the title.

"I like her hair. She is nice. She has nice clothes. I like Mrs. Lipstick"

Ok, not the most phenomenal piece of work out there, but you get the idea. No one is writing books about my classmates (well, not yet). If I was a lawyer no one would write an All-About book based on me. And if they did, they would not have given me perfectly straight hair drawn with a pencil and an extra-thick yellow crayon. So maybe there are a few boogers in my job. I can live with that.

As long as I don't have to clean it up.

Tomorrow's lesson- how to use a tissue.

rights and responsibilities of ed blogging

Last week, as my fabulous co-teacher wrote in her own blog, we learned that other schools in our district cannot access blogs during the day. Although we currently can, we are a bit worried about how long that privilege will last. With an upcoming change in our administration we're feeling a bit nervous. Our previous principal was extremely supportive of our blogs and allowed us to use them as a collaborative reflection piece. Many of us use blogs to reflect on our classrooms and our daily practices. Some use blogs to reach out to their families. Others use blogs to communicate their education opinions with the wider education community.

I can see how blogging would be scary to a principal- particularly a new principal. How do you have control of what is being said and read? How do you protect your staff and children? How do you know what's out there? I think good leadership is about letting go of that control and giving it to others- which is what our old principal did. Hopefully we'll continue with that track.

All this has me thinking about our rights and responsibilities as education bloggers.
Do we have the right to blog about our jobs? Do we have the right to reflect using the internet? The right to connect with other teachers across the world? The right to add to the global conversation about what works and what doesn't work about education? I'd like to think we do, but of course, that all comes along with its own set of responisbilities.

Truthfully I've been mulling over my own set of rights/responsibilities for months now, but never getting them into writing. I'd love your thoughts- what do you see as our role? Do we have rights? A responsibility?

Here is my blogging promise to you, as well as to my future new principal:

Within my blog, I promise to try my best to:

*Never forget the greater picture of why I'm blogging. I will not write posts to gain followers, get attention with snarky comments, or harm either students of co-workers with my words. I blog to become a better teacher, hone my own insights, gain a better understanding of my teaching journey, connect with other educators who, in turn, can make me become a better teacher.

*Always write about a child in a way so that if their parent found the blog they would know I respected every aspect of their child's learning- although I may write weaknesses I must always show the child's true strengths & write to show how much I love and appreciate the child.

*Always write about my co-workers in a way that also reflects their strengths. I have amazing co-workers, which is truly a blessing. I value collaborating and believe that we are better teachers when we put our heads together. I never want to write anything that will in any way hurt our relationship, which in turn would hurt the students' learning. I don't want to use my blog to vent, in turn hurting the trust someone has put in me.

*I will work hard not to write anything that will prevent me from doing my job. I do not want anything I write to hurt my co-workers, students, or my school in any way. I have the best job in the world, and I would hate to end up having to leave teaching because I forgot the bigger picture in my blog.

*I try my best to stick to these, but I'm sure you can find posts I've written that don't follow these 4 rules. But I try. Sometimes I might think I'm following them and I don't, and later I can see where I made my mistake. Know I'm trying, and if you feel I haven't done one of these let me know.

So, here's what I see as our blogging rights-

*We have the right to reflect on our teaching journey on-line.
*We have the right to collaborate with educators from all over the world.
*We have a right to wonder what is best practice, debate education policies/practices/teaching styles, and question what is not working in an on-line forum.
*We have a right to use our blogs to process a difficult day, as long as we stay within the lines of the responsibilities listed above.

The combination of the Rights/Responsibilities allows us to:

*Communicate & collaborate with educators from all over the world
*Become more reflective in our teaching
*Improve our teaching practices to best benefit our students
*Find the silver linings inside the most frustrating of days & know that we are not alone
*Keep a sense of humor, which, in turn, allows us to be stronger teachers who come back to work day after day inspired, energized, and ready for a challenge

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Amazing is moving. We're thrilled for her family, whose found a bigger house that will meet Amazing's needs. We're devastated for us. Rarely do you get to teach such an amazing child- someone with such determination to learn and excel despite all the obstacles the world has put in front of her. I've never seen a five year old work so hard at anything- whether it is cleaning up materials, participating in whole-group lessons, or completing her work independently.

The other day she drove her power wheel chair up to the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom and began slowly banging away at it with her hand. I hate the paper towel dispensers at our school- it's a constant battle for someone with typical mobility in their hands/arms to be able to rescue the tiniest piece of paper from the mammoth box. It typically requires quite a bit of banging on the lever before you begin to see the hint of brown paper coming down toward you. Then you are required to grab it with both hands and pull- hoping that you'll pull 5 inches of towel out, instead of just ripping off the small piece you're able to see. Most 5 year olds don't waste their time and just dry their hands on their pants (actually, many teachers do this too).

Not Amazing. I watched as she carefully banged away, determined to get the paper herself. As she pulled and ripped- all by herself, her smile beamed with pride. "Here," she exclaimed, "I got this for you" she said to her aid, as though she was holding a gold medal. She was able to give something to the aid who normally gives everything to her. She helped herself to another towel, and clutched it as she drove the chair out of the bathroom. Pure pride.

I can't believe we wont be able to watch such an amazing girl grow up at our school. I want to watch her learn about worms and plants in first grade, double digit addition and subtraction in second grade, and Virginia history in 4th grade. If someone has that much determination to get a paper towel, what can't she do?

I hope we can stay in touch with her mother so we can follow her success throughout her life.

*if you haven't read about Amazing yet click on the tag below to read our previous adventures*

Saturday, May 8, 2010

monkey see, monkey do

"We do not EVER yell in the hallway!" I exploded in the hallway, "People are trying to learn!"

And then I paused, slowly realizing what I had just done. Silently thankful that the two kindergartners I'd just caught screaming at each other in the hallway were too young to understand irony, I led them into a classroom so I could stop modeling the behavior I was reprimanding them for.

It's been that kind of week.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

teeth grinding for open testing season...

I tried to keep from obviously grinding my teeth during guided reading as I watched my readers struggle through the book. Really? I felt myself mentally screaming. How do you not recognize the word HERE? We've been reading books like that since the first day of school. I could feel my breathing tighten as I watch them go back over the simple high frequency word. /h/, /h/, /h/, the reader repeated, obviously not using any of the other reading strategies we've been working on- re-reading, thinking about if it makes sense, checking the picture, reading on and then going back. Nothing a quiet /h/ puttering- a slowly dying car trying to start up one last time.

Mentally I slammed my head into the table. In reality I tried my best to prompt him to use strategies to read the word and then back away, hoping he'll get it on his own. I scribbled down observations, more to keep me from giving him the word than for the notes' actual worth.

By the end of the group all 5 of us were done. They left the table frustrated with their reading, and I left frustrated with my teaching. We might as well have all had a wrestling match with no winner.

It's May. Testing season has begun. My readers are teetering on the benchmark- we've got to push these last few weeks to make it. We're one level away- reading 15s when all we need is to read 16s. We're so close- all the steady work we've put in throughout the year is coming down to these last few weeks.

Reflecting on my frustration from yesterday I realized it came from me- the lesson blew up because I wasn't teaching the reader- I was teaching the test. Instead of looking at what my readers need I was thinking about everything we have to do to make it to benchmark. It came down to that feeling at the end of a cross country race in the rain when you just put your head down and go with whatever you have left in you, no matter how much it hurts.

Except that, teaching reading isn't like running. We don't get to come to the end goal and then stop. We might have a first grade goal, but then they have to carry their reading over the summer and into second grade, where their reading will continue to climb upward.

I want them to get to the 16 benchmark because it's my goal. And it's a great goal to keep us reading with our readers everyday and pushing them like they should be pushed- except when meeting the goal gets in the way of teaching that specific reader in front of us. The one who may not be ready for 16s, but is right there- a firm 14- and with support and scaffolding, proper teaching and patience- will continue to move up to 16s and beyond, even if it's not in the three week window we have left.

I feel deflated thinking about the ones who might not make it- we've been on track all year to make this goal. But when I think about the readers they are every day- all the good things they typically do as readers, along with their love of reading- and then compare it to the failed guided reading lesson yesterday, I shutter. In forgetting to teach the reader I gave them my stress- handed them books they weren't ready for- and then allowed myself to show my frustration when they struggled through simple words- and the more stressed the group became, the more we all struggled.

I'm not giving up on meeting the goal- I'm determine we'll get there in 3 weeks- but I am determined that today I'll teach the readers in front of me- I'll give them the support they need to be strong, independent readers, and not just readers who can pass a test.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

social networking, internet safety, and schools

Last week I brought my netbook to my jump rope team's practice so I could continue to work on scheduling my unending amount of IEPs for the week. My jumpers, somehow enthralled by the tiny computer (despite the fact we have a whole set of them in the library they use every week) crowded around it to see.
"Wow, you could check facebook on that!" one crowed, an innocent statement that opened a whole can of worms...

"Isn't facebook bad?" one girl asked, and I tried to explain that if you are on it you should only be on it with your parents, and that when you use it you have to be very, very careful.
"Yeah," one boy agreed, "'cause I had some crazy girl I didn't know as a friend and then she started writing all this bad stuff on my wall so I had to de-friend her."
I was curious about "all this bad stuff" but I didn't ask. Others chimed in,
"I'm a good girl, I'm not on facebook"
"Can we be facebook friends?"
"What about when I'm in middle school? Then can we be facebook friends?"
"I look at my teacher's picture every day."
"Oh yeah, me too- Ms. _____ is so cute in her new picture!"
"I look up all the teachers. But I never friend them. I mean, that would be like being friends with the principal!"
"Yeah, then the teachers would know what we were doing! That would be terrible!"

The conversation went on and on, until finally we started jumping.

I of course, raced home and, using facebook, alerted my co-workers that our little ones spent their free time stalking us on facebook. Always a good thing to be aware of when posting facebook profile pictures...

This got their teachers thinking. If the kids rushed home to look at our profile pictures, we could possibly look at their profile pictures.
And so the searching began- and once one's profile was discovered it wasn't long until we could link to all of them- even the ones with fake names. A few smart ones had their profiles marked as private, but most did not. Although, based on what they wrote on their walls- they clearly thought no one else could see.

As teachers we were horrified, saddened, and, to be honest, scared. We spend all of our time teaching our hearts out to better these little people, to make sure they learn to read and write and show common sense. We monitor their behavior within school walls, guiding their social decisions, scaffolding them to being productive independent thinkers. Then we found proof that outside the school we had no control.

Some of the profiles I stumbled across were my former first graders. I remember their smiling faces when they read a difficult book successfully, or wrote a story they were proud of. I certainly didn't teach them to write so they could write THOSE words on someone else's wall. I didn't spent hours modeling problem solving behaviors to have them lose all common sense on the internet. We found some current second graders. We found innocent pages, not so innocent pages, pages where they were friends with their parents (good job parents!) and pages where they clearly were not friends with any adult whatsoever.

It became an interesting debate- what should happen next? What's our role as educators? Our first instinct, our mama-bear drive, made us want to shut them all down. Take away their computers. Take away facebook entirely. Then other ideas came- how to educate them? How to scare them enough to let them know we can see EVERYTHING they put up? How to educate them to use social networks properly?

Can we write on their walls? Can we correct their spelling, remind them or proper grammar? Should we just begin posting their homework on facebook every day? "Liking" their status updates, just to remind them that we're out there?

I first got on facebook because I knew my younger cousins were. I knew the temptation of thinking what you put on facebook is private, and I wanted my presence to be a reminder to my young cousins that anything they put on facebook could be seen by family- and later told to my grandmother. If you didn't want Nana to know about it- don't put it up there for the world to see.

How could we deliver that message to them?

Ironically, the conversation we had as teachers about what to do about facebook was held almost entirely over facebook- through status update comments and facebook chats. We were using social media to problem solve what to do about social media.

I left Thursday to go out of town, so I don't know the final solution, but I know there was one, and that the 4th and 5th grade teachers took care of it. The whole incident represents a broader question- how do we productively teach internet safety so that children actually listen and follow it? How do we protect our children and keep them safe on the internet? Can we allow them to use social media without it getting out of control? And is it appropriate for us to be a presence out there? Can we use it to post homework, remind about school assemblies, and as a way to communicate with our students? Would knowing that we are out there keep everyone honest?

Yet I say that knowing full well that I DO NOT want my students to see my facebook page- if we used facebook for homework I'd want to have a teacher-identity page. Which, of course, would be sending a double standard to the kids. And then, most likely, they'd have 2 pages too. One we knew about and one we didn't... and we'd be back to where we were when we first discovered this mess.