Thursday, December 17, 2015

ESEA Reauthorization- What will it mean?

There was a time in my life- before I had children of my own- that I followed education politics closely. I was always ready with an opinion and was quick to weigh in. My 25 year old self was waiting breathlessly for the ESEA re-authorization that passed last week. But my current self? Not so much. The last few years I haven't spent much time following the ins and outs of the education debates and forming my own opinions. The time I spent analyzing education policy is now swept up in re-reading Elephant and Piggy books and plotting how to get two young children to bed without completely going grey.

So it feels strange to read about the new education law passed and to have barely thought about its impact. I've read a few blogs and some helpful graphs, but that's it. Perhaps this is because it does not seem like much has changed. From my role as a teacher within the schools, I don't foresee big changes coming down to us. Particularly for those of us in Virginia, who never adopted the Common Core and seemed to maintain a fairly staunch stand in its determination to maintain state control. But maybe I've adapted this view point simply because I now work in a school that does not feel overly impacted by the changing laws. I'm interested to hear what teachers in turn-around schools think about the changes, and if they predict a big difference in what happens within their school walls next year.

I'm a bit worried that we are going to start giving standardized tests to measure grit and this article from the Washington Post greatly concerned me.

This info graphic from Ed Reform Now is fairly helpful.

ESEA Reauthorization,Dec10

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

That moment in guided reading...

I quickly flashed an index card with the word 'some' printed on it to one of the fifth graders I work with in the intellectual disabilities class. "Three somes?" the boy exclaimed. "Three somes?"

We start every guided reading group with a quick word game to review our high frequency words (words a reader can expect to see all the time like and, because, some, come, etc.) The game changes occasionally but we always use the same stack of index cards. As we go through a new book I'll add new words to our stack depending on what words they have difficulty with. We've been adding to this stack for two years now so it is getting fairly thick. I have not done much in the way of editing the cards for repeats and there are numerous words that sneak into the stack multiple times. This usually works out in my favor because if the students have trouble with the word and it is already in the stack then it certainly doesn't hurt anything to repeat it.

Yet there now happen to be three some cards. Three. Somes. Say it fast.

The friend I showed the third 'some' card to was obviously keeping track of the number of times he'd been asked to read the word some. He's also a friend who finds one phrase to repeat over and over again. Some days he asks me if I'm wearing boots the entire 45 minutes we work together. Other times it's announcing he's not coming to school on Saturday. Yesterday it was the number of somes in our deck.

Mrs. Lipstick, why we have to do three somes? Why you make us do three somes? 


Over and over again. 

I've never been so happy that no one happened to walk by the classroom at that exact moment. I shamelessly drew his attention away from the three some cards and to our shoes. I won't get fired over a 45 minute line repetition over shoes. The three somes would be harder to explain.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Fifth Grade Conversations

I came out of a meeting and ran smack into a fifth grade girl with a concerned look on her face.

"Mrs. Lipstick?"


"What's better, Puma or Nike?"

"Um, I don't know, I have never thought about it."

"Well, which do you own more of?"

"I don't know if right now I own anything by either one."

Silence and look of shock.


"I don't think I own either brand."

She shook her head and walked into the group bathroom, where I could hear her exclaim to her friends, "She doesn't own either brand!!"

This is my first year in fifth grade as a teacher. I obviously have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Alternative View on Sensory Storytimes

As I chatted with a children's librarian to get book recommendations for my upcoming sensory story time a nearby woman listened intently. She began making suggestions herself, and as she talked she shared that she really didn't see why the library would put such a story time in place that would actively separate children with autism from typically developing children.

For a moment I was stunned. That wasn't the purpose of the story times at all. Our hope is that the story times will have the opposite effect- parents will feel comfortable enough at the sensory story times that they will see the library as a place they can bring their child- and that they will eventually bring their child to the traditional story times as well. Yet as she talked I could understand her point of view.

In her eyes we were saying that we didn't think these children could handle going to a traditional story time. By creating a story time to cater to specific needs, she seemed to feel that they were sending the message that children with autism and developmental disabilities were not welcome at other events. "Why can't parents just bring their child to any story time?" she asked.

The conversation was eye opening because until that moment I hadn't realized that hosting a specific sensory story time could be interpreted this way.

The story times are becoming increasingly popular and the feedback we've gotten from parents is that they appreciate a welcoming place to bring their child, and that it's a relief to come to the library and feel comfortable that they aren't being judged. After the story time you can see most of the participants and their families selecting books from the stacks. Our mission seems to be working- we are giving parents a place to bring their children and encouraging a love for books.

Listening to the woman's perspective was a good reminder that we shouldn't just stop at offering the separate story times- there is more we can do to make all story times, or really any event that welcomes kids to be good for all kids- not just the typically developing. Hopefully the parents will also notice the busy bulletin board with flyers from all the different story times offered and will begin to think about bringing their child to those as well. We can even encourage them to look at the bulletin board and remind them that their child is welcome at any of the sessions.

If you are in the Northern Virginia area the next sensory storytime will be at the Kings Park library on Dec 5th at 10:30 in their meeting room space.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Student Trust, Testing, and Grit

Last week I watched a small group of upper grade students try as hard as they could on a standardized reading assessment, submit their computerized test for grading, and immediately receive their scores. Their faces fell when the computer gave them their results. They hadn't passed- hadn't even come close. There is nothing more disheartening as a teacher than to watch students try so hard- doing everything you've taught them to do- fail, and then be heart broken by the results.Their responses to their scores haunted me all weekend. "Why even try?" seemed to be their question as they berated themselves for their scores. "Hard work doesn't matter."

I was disheartened by the scores myself. Many of the students I've put my blood sweat and tears into did quite poorly, even on questions I would have thought they could answer. While my reaction to the scores was not as extreme as the students themselves, I certainly related to where they were coming from. For that one moment on Friday afternoon it felt like all of the work we've put in for the year had been meaningless. And that's a pretty horrible feeling to have.

Soon after I sat in a 3 hour meeting where we combed through the grade level scores of the assessment. We analyzed each question, looked at trends across the grade level, and made instructional plans. Which children would receive more direct test prep and which ones need more specific reading instruction? How do we want our lessons to address the gaps from the test? What do we need to focus on?

I left the meeting feeling better about the scores- as professionals we have a plan. The results may not have been pretty but now we have specific methods to bring up those scores. We know what we need to do. My teaching can be more exact, targeting the key areas where my students struggled. The test, as unpleasant as it was, is going to improve my lessons and in the end the students will be better readers.

Now how do we take that lesson to the kids? Kids who are already asking the question of whether or not school is meant for them. There are no easy lessons for how to help these kids see that failure right now means future growth. That doesn't seem to be an intervention group we can plan for. It's going to be more than a conversation- we're going to need to prove our words to the kids- over and over again- so they'll believe us. They did everything we told them to- worked hard, used strategies, didn't give up- and the results didn't match their effort. Now our job is to keep their attention and trust long enough to prove that failure now means growth later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Can't vs Won't

For the past year I've been participating in a research study out of Georgetown University and Children's National Hospital looking at the executive functioning curriculum, Unstuck and On Target. I can't say enough about this curriculum and the impact I've seen it have on students with high functioning autism and ADHD. Yet one of the greatest benefits I've gotten from the program is how it has been able to shift my thinking about these students and their behavior.

One of the concepts the curriculum has taught me and my coworkers to consider is looking at a student's behavior and asking, "Is this a can't or a won't?" We often see a student's behavior as a won't- when we ask the student to do something and they just refuse to do it. We ask them to keep their hands to themselves, get started with their work, organize their desk, go with the flow, and adapt to changes in rules and schedules on the fly. When they don't follow our directions it often looks like they made a conscious decision to ignore us. It looks like they are playing with their pencil to avoid getting started on their work, or that they are arguing with us over a change in a rule to be difficult and get attention. We think that they focus on one topic or ignore a direct instruction because they are fighting for control in their lives. And sometimes that is true, but sometimes it's not.

Putting the pieces together on student behavior
Sometimes their behavior is a can't. A student can't get started on his work because he doesn't have the executive functioning ability to organize his thoughts at that moment. So he sits there, looking like he's avoiding doing work, when in fact he wants to start but doesn't know how. A student can't disengage with one idea in his head and continues to come back to a certain topic despite the fact we've told him to move on.  In these cases the student behavior is not about getting attention, controlling the environment, or escaping from situations or given tasks (which is often what we look for when we're identifying the causes of misbehavior) but an inability to organize one's self to follow the rules and direction- even when the student really, really wants to do exactly what was asked.

This one question- is it a can't or a won't? has changed the way my school looks and responds to student behavior. Just asking it allows your mind to shift from thinking that a student is intentionally driving you crazy to wondering what behaviors you can teach to help the student regulate and organize himself.

Last year I was talking with a childhood friend who was recently diagnosed with autism. I was shocked at the diagnosis and was arguing with him about it. There was no way. The friend is now extremely successful, went to a top college and graduate program, and is now making more money than I will ever see. On the outside it looks like my friend has it all together (and he does, I don't want to imply that people with autism can't have it all together). In arguing with him I brought up all those debates he had with teachers over the years, all the assignments where he did the opposite of what the teacher asked while still following the exact directions the teacher gave, and all the moral stands he took against things in our school. His peers had always assumed he was anti-authority and just so much smarter than the teachers that he was always finding small ways to prove it. My friend turned red as he listened to me talk. "That's not how it was at all," he explained. "In every moment you just mentioned I wanted to follow the rules more than anything. I wanted to blend in and do what the teacher said. But I couldn't. There was always a reason. When I did what I did I was often doing exactly what the teacher said- it just wasn't what she wanted. Or I was trying to clarify what the teacher wanted and it came across as arguing." This struck me like a slap across the face. I couldn't stop thinking about it (I still can't). Even as his peers we'd assumed he was making a conscious decision to do these things. It became a part of how we saw him. But it wasn't a choice he was making. It was a can't.

What students are calling out to us for help through their behavior and we automatically think they are making a conscious decision to break the rules? We assume their behavior has a motivation behind it and we react to the motivation. When you change the lens you use to look at student behavior you suddenly realize areas where you can actively teach skills instead of simply modifying the environment or drawing a line in the sand.

Our job is always to teach, whether we are teaching how to read or how to behave in school. We can teach students how to have cognitive flexibility, how to respond to frustration, and how to problem solve. We just need to check the lens we are using to study the behavior and insure we are seeing it clearly.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Implying Trust vs Judgement Toward Our Fellow Educators

Teaching is changing. When I went through teacher training fifteen years ago the idea of co-teaching was barely touched on. It was expected that you would teach in isolation, only see your co-workers in the teacher's lounge or before/after school, and would pretty much be on your own with making your lesson plans and determining how to help a struggling student.

The expectations for teachers today are very different. Collaboration and team planning are a part of the territory, and working together with your colleagues is essential to being a successful educator. This is a wonderful, welcomed change.

But we need to change with it. Working together only works if we are willing to trust each other as educators. We need to drop the idea of who is a better teacher (just like we need to drop the idea of who is a high student and who is a low student). We need to recognize one another for our different strengths as teachers and come to the table with not just open and honest dialogue but respect for one another's professional ability as well.

Team work falls apart when we don't trust the members of our team, but too often I see us undermining one another's teaching skills. I hear this underlying tension in conversations I have with educators at schools across the country. In talking with teachers they relay a conversation with a team member who thought she was being helpful but in fact left the teacher feeling judged and helpless. Teamwork falls apart when we become skeptical of one another's teaching styles and in turn become uneasy because we suspect our colleagues are skeptical of our teaching style as well. It's too easy for conversations to become laced with judgement and defensiveness instead of being about the facts at the table.

Teams can only have hard conversations, problem solve tough situations, and develop meaningful strategies to increase student learning if everyone comes to the table ready to have an open and honest discussion. Yet some of the language we use often limits building trust with one another. We want individuals on the team to not take what's said personally, but we also need to watch our words to make sure we aren't making it personal. Instead of implying judgement our words with one another should say that we trust in our teammate's ability and intentions.

Team conversations can often go one of two ways. Take for example a team discussing a student's difficulty in sitting on the rug and attending to the lesson, which is leading to limited gains in math.

One conversation may go this way:

We can only help kids if we are helping each other.
New teacher: I'm having difficulty with Johnny's attention on the rug. He's never looking at me despite what I've tried, and with these new math scores I'm beginning to think it's more of a problem than I first thought. Any ideas on what to do?

Teammate 1: In my classroom I hold the students accountable for sitting on the rug quietly. I have high expectations for them to sit there quietly and they each know what I expect.

Teammate 2: Oh yes! My clear structure makes it possible for each of my students to learn. I tell them exactly what I expect and then hold them to do it. If they aren't attending they go back to their desk to take a break. That keeps them on track.

Or this way:

New teacher: I'm having difficulty with Johnny's attention on the rug. He's never looking at me despite what I've tried, and with these new math scores I'm beginning to think it's more of a problem than I first thought. Any ideas on what to do?

Teammate 1: Does Johnny know that when he's sitting on the carpet he's expected to learn? Sometimes kids get in the habit of tuning out on the rug and don't know that we want from them during that time.

Teammate 2: How would he do if you had him model how you expect him to sit on the rug before the lesson starts? It wouldn't take more than 20 seconds. You could say, "I want everyone to show me how we sit on the rug. Criss-cross applesauce, hands in lap, eyes on me, listening ears on."

Teammate 1: What about checking for understanding during the lesson? You could insert some questions into your lesson that would let you be able to tell if he's listening or not. That may keep him engaged and will let you know where he is getting confused.

The first conversation does nothing but tell the new teacher that her teammates don't think she has good structure in her classroom. She may not, but now she's brought a problem to the table and is leaving with nothing tangible but judgement. She doesn't have any strategies to go back and use with her student and she's a lot less likely to bring up a concern again. The words her teammates used- accountable, high expectations, clear structure- are meaningless. They did not help Johnny and they actively hurt all the other students the new teacher needs help with and will now be scared to ask. She knows her teammates don't trust her teaching.

In the second conversation the teammates hid their judgement. They kept it away from being personal and saying, "in my classroom," which implies that the speaker would never have that problem herself. They didn't use buzz words and gave clear suggestions the new teacher can take back and use. She left feeling like she has action items to try instead of feeling like if she was just a better teacher (whatever that means) these problems wouldn't happen.

Instead of using statement that imply judgement, "In my classroom..." or, "If he is just given high behavior expectations..." we can convey the same message by taking away the personal wording and be specific with one another. We often use buzz words like 'accountability,' 'high expectations,' 'clear structure' with one another that don't mean anything. Conversations with each other need to be open- clearly describing what we mean by high expectations, accountable, and what clear structure would look like in this case for this student.

It's hard because we often don't have time to have full, open conversations. We all approach teaching differently and the uncomfortable truth is that there are no right answers. Our job would be a lot easier if there was a strict formula for getting knowledge into little brains or managing difficult behavior, but there isn't. There are research-based strategies and proven methods, but to learn those we need to have open conversations. And here's the dirty little secret on research anyway.

If we can take away the personal, underlying messages we can build trust with one another, which leads to truly open and honest conversations about students. The more we are able to build trust with each other the more our conversations will lead to problem solving and helping kids.

~~~  ~~~~  ~~~~  ~~~
I had a hard time writing this post, and struggled to find the words to say what I wanted to say. I'm still not sure I conveyed my message. It's just- we need to build one another up instead of pulling each other down. I find myself hearing about decisions educators make at other schools and immediately assuming the teacher is an idiot. Why do I do that? The teacher is probably not an idiot- is probably doing the best she can at the moment- and my judgement isn't going to help fix that. I don't know the educator or the situation, yet I still am quick to judge. In some ways it is harmless when I'm making a judgement about a teacher I've never met, but it is extremely harmful if I do the same thing with the teachers I work with on a daily basis.  If we are going to work together to improve our students' education we need to start finding ways to convey true collaboration instead of judgement. 

We shouldn't avoid hard conversations and we shouldn't hold back when we see where a student can improve. But if our words are truly going to make a lasting impact we need to choose them carefully.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mindset, the Changing Brain and Student Perceptions

I quietly listened to the fifth graders explain their thoughts on whether or not someone could really be smart or dumb and held myself back from interrupting. The class was participating in a Socratic seminar, which meant that we, the teachers, needed to leave the discussion up to them and not jump in to encourage them to expand their thinking. This is a difficult task for teachers who a
re specifically trained in how to question and probe students to get them from point A to point B. But when we sat back and listened it was clear the students didn't need us to encourage them to expand their thoughts- they were doing it on their own.

They'd read an article on the brain, one that explained in (fifth-grade) scientific terms how the brain grows and changes with stimulation. The article even discussed research on rats and how their brains reacted to playing with toys verse just being kept in a cage. It was as scientific as one could get in fifth grade, and the students seemed to love it. As they called on one another by last name and started their statements with, "I respectfully disagree with Mr. Jones..." or "I'd like to add on to what Ms. Smith said," they seriously shared their thoughts on whether someone could be smart or dumb, whether animal testing was fair (should all of those rats had toys and not just some of them?), and could your brain get overloaded with too much information. Some of them gave silly responses but all of them stayed on topic and listened to one another.

The classroom teacher gave the final question, "Has this article changed your thinking about school?" and I looked around the room with curiosity, not sure what would come out. These students had been inundated with the ideas of Carol Dweck's Mindset since second grade. Every year they've heard about how the brain can grow, and their teachers have constantly talked about it, used visuals, and made goal setting charts for students to track their own progress. Could one article on the brain change how they think?

It did. Student after student shared how the article- the science behind what their teachers had been saying for years- made them believe. They aren't "bad at math" they just haven't worked as hard as they could. Their peers aren't "smarter than they are," they are just working harder.

One girl quietly raised her hand. She barely participated in the seminar, which wasn't unusual for her. We brought the microphone over to her and she began, "My mother always says, 'Go to school. Get good grades,' and I thought, what's the point? I'm not going to get good grades. Why should I go to school? Now I know I can get good grades."

I'm not remembering her quote accurately, but it was more poetic and heartfelt than what I've written here. She's a student who struggles, mainly because she is still learning English. I've worked with her since third grade and can understand where her perceptions of not being someone who gets good grades comes from. It hurt to hear her say that she didn't believe her mother when she told her to go to school and get good grades- but it wasn't a surprise. Her body language every day sent the message that she did not believe school was for her. The article acted like a permission slip for her, telling her that her destiny was in her control- not already set in stone.

Why did the article speak louder than anything we said or did as teachers? Perhaps it is another reminder of how capable our students are. We are adults that talk and talk and talk. When we stand back and let them interact with an article, their thoughts, and listen to their peers they take more ownership of what they are learning. It's not our message- it becomes their own.

Education Week recently published Carol Dweck's latest thoughts on the growth mindset and how the education community has been using it. 

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.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Family vs Work- TeacherMom Conundrum strikes again

A few weeks ago, when it was still deep in the midst of summer break and actually being in school felt like a world away our administration sent an email with important dates for the first week back. As I studied it my heart sank. Our back to school/meet the teacher/ open house night is on Thursday evening- the same evening as my daughter's fourth birthday.

My daughter has been talking about her fourth birthday since the night of her third birthday. To her birthdays are bigger than Christmas. If you say a month of the year she can tell you who from our family, extended family, or group of friends has a birthday in that month. 

My school, on the other hand, is trying a new back to school night where we combine the meet the teacher evening into the same back to school night that traditionally takes place a few weeks into the school year. The PTO will have food trucks outside and we are all expected to be there from 5-8 to meet parents and children, answer their questions, and present the important information needed for the school year. I've been really excited about the way we were wrapping multiple events into one fun night and had been looking forward to being a part of it to make it a smooth night for both family and staff.

My amazing administration said it was fine if I left to be with my daughter, which is my current plan. Not being a classroom teacher means that I would really spend the evening helping with crowd-control. She's nervous about starting preschool and I don't know how I would explain to a four year old that I can't be at her birthday. But the guilt is crushing. Everyone else on our staff is going to be working a full 12 hour day- from 8am-8pm. Everyone else is working hard to make the night go smoothly, calm parent fears and get the students excited. I should be there as a part of the team. My daughter will one day forgive me. Or she can add it to the list of things to talk about in therapy when she's older- when once again mommy left her to be with other kids.

There is no winning. Some moments I think that my daughter will understand and it's my professional responsibility to be there. Other moments I think that my family comes first and I'm doing the right thing by going home this evening. Whatever I choose I will feel awful about and will regret not making the other choice. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Parenting Side of First Day Jitters

My stomach is tight and I'm having trouble breathing whenever I think about the first day of school next week. I've never quite felt like this about the start of the school year. What if all the kids are horrid and the teachers are mean? What if there isn't time to go to the bathroom or the directions aren't clear?  What if there aren't any friends?

My daughter is getting ready for her first day of preschool. Until now she's been in a lovely in-home daycare with all of her best friends (whose mothers I am good friends with as well). She's been there since she was three months old and I always knew she was in phenomenal hands. My daycare provider spent so much time helping us transition her back when she was just a peanut that I barely had a worry when I dropped her off that first day.

She thinks she's ready for college
Now? Now there seems to be so much more to worry about. It's not just if she'll nap or eat on time, but now I'm worried that she won't make friends or she'll make too many friends and not listen to the teacher. I'm worried she won't get along with the teacher or the teacher won't like her. I'm worried she won't understand the directions and then be so sensitive about being redirected that she'll be scared to ask for help the next time. Or that she won't go to the bathroom, or she will, but not make it to the potty. I'm scared she'll cry the whole first day and they'll just leave her in the corner telling her that they will be there when she's ready to calm down.

In my mind all of the other preschoolers are straight from Mean Girls and the teachers are different versions of the Trunchbull. And I know this is ridiculous because I work with kids and I know they are all wonderful and I know how caring and sweet early childhood teachers are. Still.

For four years I've been able to say I was a parent, and even said things like, "As a parent I know how you feel" to the parents of students I teach. That was a lie I didn't even know I was telling. I thought I understood, but I had no idea.

Every year I've been a part of helping separate the kindergartners from their parents, take them down the hallway and find their classroom. I've been a part of trying to get the parents to leave the school quickly, telling the parent (without realizing how condescending it sounds) "It's harder for you than it is for her."  Maybe it is, but that comment doesn't make it any easier on the parent or the child.

What I didn't understand was that I was walking that parent's heart down the hallway, away from them and their strong instinct to protect their child from danger. I didn't understand that in the parents mind I was taking their baby and throwing her down the hall to the wolves.

I didn't know that the parent just wanted to know that their child was going to be ridiculously loved, challenged, encouraged, and kept safe. As I worry about whether or not my daughter is going to get all four of these elements from her teacher I've got a new appreciation for the parents who will be entering my own school next week with their precious cargo in tow. I hope I can convey the same amount of love and trust to their parents that I want for my child's own school experience.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Play. I miss it.

One of my former colleagues who now teaches kindergarten posted this question on her blog- should she have a play kitchen in her kindergarten classroom or a doll house? It's been interesting to read the comments both on her blog and on her Facebook page to see what people's perspectives are.
Interactive writing to create a menu for the kitchen area.

In answering the question I started to realize just how much I miss teaching through play and having the opportunity to interact with kindergartners during their free play times at my former school. My current school, while amazing in many ways, does not have any toys in the kindergarten classrooms. I understand that is the way many kindergarten classes are going these days as kindergarten becomes the new first grade.

As I've gone back and read all of my former posts on play and I'm slowly remembering how much I relied on it to get to know my students and to teach. I did so much during the kindergarten free choice time. I did interactive writing activities based off of the students' play schemes. I led guided play groups where in mid-play I could introduce a new scenario and help the kids determine how to solve a problem. I taught sorting, counting, reading, and writing skills. I encouraged kids to stop playing and write books about the stories they just acted out. In my class for students with intellectual disabilities I used it as a time to develop their working memory, enhance their literacy and numeracy skills, and develop social skills like making eye contact. I miss those opportunities.

Spontaneous interactive writing in the beginning of kindergarten in the kitchen area.
When did we decide play was out? When it made programs look like they were wasting valuable instructional time? When we couldn't measure the outcome in data easily? When we felt we had too much to do to get the students ready for first grade?

I've just finished up an on-line Greenspan DIR/Floortime course so perhaps I'm feeling more passionate about what can be done through play and following the child's lead than I normally am, but my heart is breaking for those moments of teaching through following a child's lead during play.

Acting out the restaurant 
Working on her oral language skills and English by chatting on the phone.

Friday, August 21, 2015

It’s Back to School Time, Give a TeacherMom a Hug!- Guest Post by KJ Cabacar

This is a guest post from my amazing friend and colleague who rocks at both being a mother and being a teacher.

Dear Workingmom, Stay At Home Mom, CoWorker, Principal, Everyone out there besides us TeacherMoms-

I have seen, heard, and read so many open letters to stay at home moms, working moms, moms in general I can’t keep count.  As I sit here surrounded by school supplies and back to school forms, I can’t help but think there has to be other moms out there like me.  Somewhere there have to be others facing what I am facing and making it through because otherwise what hope do I have? There has to be more of me and like me they have need a hug this time of year too, desperately.

We are the TeacherMoms of the world.  The moms that get up and send their kids to school so that they can stand at a classroom door and happily greet yours.  We are the moms that attend numerous back to school nights and then get up and lead one of our own.  We are the moms that pick up the items on the back to school list times three (one for our own kid, an extra set for the class, and one for our own classroom.)  Yes, we choose to do this to ourselves year in and year out, not because it’s a job but because it’s a passion.  And yet that doesn’t mean it is easy. It doesn’t mean we don’t need someone to look at us and say, "You are doing great! Keep loving those 30 plus kids you are in contact with day in and day out!"

Really, I don’t want your sympathy, because I love what I do, and that’s why I do it.  I love that I get to create leaders, encourage champions, and share moments with the next generation.  I love that my days are filled with fifth grader goofiness, recess, and yes even math with its fractions and long division! And I love that my nights are filled with bedtime stories, two year old grins and five year old secrets. I love my life and my world, but I could still use a hug.

See, when you are a Teachermom, teachers look at you and your child differently.  Since teaching is our profession our child is naturally meant to be a perfect student.  After all, we know what that should look like, so that’s what we should produce.  Our children should automatically be reading before kindergarten, writing short stories before first grade, and solving for X by third grade.  Right?!  One of my coworkers recently did a DRA with my son because she needed to complete one for a summer class.  She explained to her instructor that it was a student going into K and would it be okay.  The instructor replied that most children going into K don’t know enough letters or sounds to get a secure DRA score.  When my friend told her it was a teacher’s child, the response became, "Oh then they’ll be fine and it should work out great!"


What makes my child so very different? I work very hard not to be a teacher in my son’s eyes.  I want to be his mommy, not the site word flashcard crazy lady!   The pressure can be so high, I actually have a friend that will not, will not allow her children to tell their teacher that their mom is also a teacher.

As September rolls into October and the Facebook feeds get filled with the precious porch pictures with the blackboard signs announcing grade levels, remember to love on a TeacherMom.  We can’t get that photo of our kids because we are busy getting our rooms ready to receive your kids.  When you steal an hour from work to drop in for an author’s party, remember to love on a TeacherMom.  We can’t steal those hours because we are hosting
those parties.  And when you sign on to chaperon a field trip, remember to love on a TeacherMom. We can’t attend those field trips because we are arranging trips for your kids.

 It’s Back to School Time, It’s Hug A TeacherMom Time!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sensory Story Times at the Local Library

Last spring I was talking to a few parents of children with special needs and started to get a sense for how trapped some of them feel in their own houses. Even though  their children are officially welcome at any of the activities for typically developing students, they often worry about going to these programs for fear their child will have a meltdown or that they will be judged by other parents who don't understand their child's disability. Sometimes getting out of the house just isn't worth it. We do a lot to promote inclusion in the school setting, but I have no idea what goes on outside of the school system. After talking with these parents I reached out to the local libraries to see if they were interested in creating sensory-friendly story times. I had two main goals for these story times- 1)to create happy literacy opportunities for children with disabilities so that they would enjoy the library and books and 2) created an environment where their parents can relax, feel welcomed in the library, and meet other parents. I worked with four different library programs this summer to get these programs running.

Each program started with a visual schedule, which the participants took turns removing and putting in the "All Done" envelope to signify it was time to move on to the next activity. We sang songs and read 1-2 books depending on the group's level of engagement.

I chose books that had a good rhythm and repetition to engage the listeners. Books like Farmyard Beat offered an opportunity for the kids to "read" along with the repetitive text, while also to use egg shakers to the rhythm of the book. This helped engage the non-verbal kids in the text as well. (When egg shakers weren't available I made my own from oatmeal containers and elbow macaroni...  )

Pom-poms, pin wheels, and play scarves helped engage listeners. At one story time I had a little one laying on his back away from the group. Giving him the pom-pom to hold got him to shake along with the songs and story. He could participate but in his own way.

I used a lot of visual pictures as well. I'd put pictures of the characters from the story up on the board and as we read along the children could come get the character off the board and put it onto the book. Taping clip art pictures onto sticky notes worked perfectly for this. Sticky notes will stay on both the board and the book without hurting the book's pages like tape would. This helped engage students in the stories by giving them something to do while also drawing their attention to the important parts of the stories (the characters, setting, main points of the story that may otherwise be vague). When we read Click, Clack, Moo I had a Boardmaker picture of angry to help them understand that the farmer was angry.

I had animals that fit with the theme of the story for the children to hold throughout the story time. This came to be helpful for some of the more fidgety children who would otherwise want to get up and touch the book or my materials. They could fidget with the animal while still being engaged. I was able to say, "Whisper to your animal what you think would happen next," "Put your animal on your head if you want to read another book," or announce, "Where are the cows? Are you ready to write a letter to Farmer Brown?" 

One tip I learned halfway through the summer is to start the story times by telling parents not to worry if their child gets up and walks around. Once I started letting parents know up front that we understand their child may need to move, touch the book, or talk I could hear parents sighs of relief. I started to understand that even if they are bringing their child to a sensory-friendly story time the parents still felt nervous about how their child would participate.

We ended the sessions by blowing bubbles to signify it was over, and to just add to the sensory experience of it all.

One of the fun aspects of this summer was that I felt my role was to provide a fun literacy opportunity for kids. It wasn't to teach reading or teach how to sit on the rug. It was to give kids a literacy opportunity they could have fun with. If they wanted to lay on their back to read the book, or stand in the back of the room and pace I could let them. It was an opportunity for playing with literacy.

If you live in the Northern Virginia area and are interested in attending a story time I will be continuing these throughout the school year on Saturday mornings- let me know and I can get you the information!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Long Summer Days

I've had so many blog posts running through my head this summer. I've already mentally composed a piece about the sensory story times I'm doing at the local libraries, a post about the professional books I'm reading, my reaction to Inside Out, a string of ideas and plans for next year, and general thoughts and observation about the teaching profession. It's all running through my head and every day a new post forms. I find myself thinking, I'll write that during nap time, or at bedtime, or I'll wake up before the kids do and write.


By nap time I am exhausted and in need of a nap myself. It's like summer camp all over again- the whole house shuts down for rest hour. It's beautiful. Not productive, but beautiful.

After bedtime I'm lucky to be churning out a few full sentences to my husband, and those few coherent phrases mostly involve trying to recap the day's events without making him leave the house and never come back.
"Refused diaper change... poop everywhere... drank bubble solution... massive fight over who got to use the washed out yogurt cup in outdoor water play... but you should have seen them play together for five minutes this afternoon. It was so cute! Best day honey, how was yours?"

Is it a giant mess? No, it's a beach. Obviously. Just not sure when we get to clean the beach up.
So I go to bed every night thinking I'll get up at 5 am and blog, return emails, or do the general grown-up chores one enjoys when not chasing a three year old and a one year old. You can imagine what happens when the alarm goes off at 5. It goes OFF. As in off, silence, not even a snooze button. Because at 5:45 the one year old will be up and ready to go and I feel like I need every ounce of energy to make it once she's awake.

So, little has been written, responded to, or completed. But despite the lack of complete thoughts, adult interactions, and productive workdays, summer has been good to us. In a slightly abusive-relationship good-to-us, but we'll take what we can get.
30 seconds. I turned my back for 30 seconds. And she's mad I didn't let her finish the beard.

I never want summer to end. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

No Sympathy for Cinderella

Yesterday my three year old gave a loud sigh as she was cleaning up. "Mommy," she groaned with the weight of the world, "if I don't go to the party soon, it will be all over." Please note this was an imaginary party. Before she went to the playroom to have this party I had requested (quite reasonably) that she clean up the play restaurant she'd created on the living room couch. Obviously cleaning up faster wasn't a part of her solution to the 'party will be over soon' play scheme. The only solution was for me to release her of her heavy burden so she and her imaginary party-friends could get out all of the dress up clothes before they decided they were late to something else.

The evil mother shrugged her shoulders and responded, "Oh no! Well, you'd better clean up faster then!" 

The groan that followed made even the one year old stop emptying out the contents of my purse to see what was wrong.

In that moment I suddenly felt for Cinderella's step mother. Who really knows what happened there. How many times had she asked Cinderella to do those chores? Maybe she set out a clear list of reasonable chores that needed to be accomplished before Cinderella could go and it was Cindi's responsibility to manager her time and follow through on her tasks. But she got side tracked playing with the birds and singing songs and suddenly she had to live with her logical consequence. Maybe her step sisters had done their chores on time and hadn't run around the room singing, totally ignoring their mother. Maybe Cinderella had made the massive mess than she was asked to clean up, and maybe she copped an attitude when she was told she had to clean it up before going to the party.

Or maybe I've been home on summer break for a bit too long...

Friday, July 17, 2015

Make your own play scarves

This summer I am doing a variety of sensory story times at local libraries (more on this later). One of the sensory objects I've been using is a set of activity/ movement scarves. I don't own a set myself so I've been borrowing from each library I visit. One librarian mentioned that she had heard you could make them yourself by cutting up bath poofs. I had to try.

At the dollar store I found a set of four poofs for a dollar. (I love that place!) 

My four year old and I untied them, cut/ripped them in half, and then made various sizes.
The mesh is fairly easy to rip once you make a good initial cut. I think we both really enjoyed the ripping process.

Then we took a tissue box wrapped in paper (sturdy brown paper, also from the dollar store), and pushed the scarves into it.

It kept my one year old busy for a very long time.

Scarves everywhere!!

Two sets of four poofs + wrapping paper = three dollars for lots of fun. The scarves themselves are $25 from Amazon.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Toilets in Kindergarten (Or, what's really important?)


"I'm five years old. I'm going to kindergarten. They have automatic flush toilets."

I couldn't tell if this was said with apprehension or excitement, but either way, it's a good reminder that what we focus on as adults may not always be what our younger friends see as important. I'm sure this boy's mommy is more concerned with his academics, whether he listens to his teacher, or whether or not he has friends in September. Her son, however, is spending his summer informing random strangers of the toilet flush situation at his soon-to-be-educational setting.

(Parent/teacher tip: those sensors can be covered up. I carry sticky-notes in the diaper bag for my noise-sensitive three year old, and when I had my own classroom I taped paper over the sensor to calm down my friends with autism. For those of you with rising kinders I would recommend finding out about the flush situation if it is an issue for your child and doing some proactive teaching. Kids can learn to cover it with toilet paper or their own sticky-notes, which at least gives them some sort of control over the angry-toilet gods.)


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Love, Learning, and Our Communities: What we see when we celebrate success at the end of the year

The business of the school year came to a grinding halt as we watched the last bus pull away from the school and head into the neighborhood on the last day of school. Just moments before the building had been filled with laughing, clapping, and shouts of goodbye from happy students on a hurry to start their summer. Now all that was left were the teachers, the empty building, half packed boxes, and one last celebratory staff meeting standing between us and the start of our summer.

It's funny how a place can feel alive in one moment and in the next go back to being just a building. Just a place. That yearly shift in a school between being filled with the energy of students to being nothing but long empty hallways is such a reminder of why we teach. We may focus on data points, closing the gap, improving our lessons, writing school improvement plans, and increasing scores because they are our profit margins. We may consume data as though it is the only sustenance that will keep us alive. But all of what we may do, all of those vitally important professional tasks that drive us to provide better futures for students are meaningless if we forget about the little beings we are doing it for.

From preschool to fifth grade our students are everything. Each one is a different human being entering our building every morning for a new experience. Each one comes to us in search of a place to belong, a need to feel love, and a hope to learn. Each one watches us for signs that they are important within our rooms and school community.

On the second to last day of school we decided to create a slide show of our student successes. My special education team and our school counselor wanted to go beyond data points and celebrating a year's growth and look at the other successes each child made. So we started pulling students aside and asking them, "What did you learn this year?" "What are you proud of?"

Here are some of the responses:

"I learned to be a part of morning meeting."

 "I learned to to be a good friend."

 "I learned to use calm-down strategies."

 "I'm a good problem solver."

"I can read with fluency."

"I learned I like math."

These were the students we struggled with, pulled our hair out over, held meeting after meeting to problem solve about, and lost sleep the entire month of September as we lay in bed wondering how we were going to help these little ones get through the year. And in June? These little ones could articulate their successes themselves. They did learn to be a part of morning meeting. They figured out (with our careful coaching) when to use calm down strategies and how to not hit their friends. They discovered aspects of the school day they liked. They found a place to belong. They learned they were loved.

 The end of year data points don't capture their small successes. Their reading and math scores are captured within the whole school data. They made amazing gains on paper. But it is the story behind those gains we need to embrace. They are more than data points and are bigger than part of a gap that needs to be closed. They are little humans, but humans none the less. They are why we teach. Why we give up personal time on weekends to plan, why we work extra hours, why we are in this profession. Without them a school is just a building and we are just doing a job. With them we are a community of learners preparing for the future.