Tuesday, October 11, 2016

College Futures

I begrudgingly got in one of the two open check-out lines at Target, frustrated that on a Saturday evening they would have so few lines open. I had lost track of time and needed to get my five year old home for dinner before the earth melted under us and hangry-ness took over.

Glancing up I realized I knew my cashier and somehow my heart leaped and sank at the same moment. It was the older sister of a group of children I taught and coached years ago. I had not seen her in years. Her family is one of those that will find it's way into your thoughts at strange times when you are not thinking about school at all. I've wondered about them for years, hoping they would all be doing well. It was wonderful to see her, but was she really here working at Target? Please, please, please, I prayed, let this be her job while she is going through school. Please let her be in school.

It turns out she is in school. Nursing school, which is a perfect fit considering her kind nature and how well she took care of her younger siblings. And her siblings are all in school too. Two are at the local community college, one of them is about to transfer to a four year university. The youngest is in her senior year of high school and wants to be a vet.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to hear all of this news. Any frustration at the long Target lines vanished, and I became the woman holding up the lines for others as we talked about her family.

There are children you teach who you know will go to college. Their families will make sure of it and financially it has been planned since the day they were born. There are other children whose futures are not so clear. Not because they cannot handle it, but because it will be a financial strain on their families, and they are up against many, many other factors. You desperately hope they will go, but are not surprised when you hear they did not. Heartbroken, but not surprised. Having a family with the financial resources to send you to college is a gift.

This family in particular stuck out to me. We traveled together for a jump rope competition and they were the ones who taught me that Taco Bell is the cheapest fast food by far, and told me exactly what the cheapest items on the menu were. As elementary school students they had a firm grasp on how to maximize their money so they would not be hungry.

I taught one of them in one of my remediation reading classes, back when our school was year round and every 9 weeks we would offer a one to two week optional class at the school during our intersession breaks. That year my class was designed for kids in danger of not passing the 5th grade reading standardized test. (The group did not know this. They thought they were hand picked to be reading coaches for new first grade readers.)

I never did learn if those children passed their tests, but I knew school was a struggle for each child in that class. These were kids who did not just struggle academically, but were also up against many, many challenges in life. School was understandably not a priority.

Yet all these years later I was learning that one of the students is headed to a four year college. Sometimes as educators we forget that passing the end of year tests is not an indication of how well the student will do in life. Struggling in fifth grade does not mean that they will not go to college or have a job in the real world. Not passing a test is not a sign that a child cannot make it in academia. Thank goodness for that. We are not in the business of giving kids a set future. We are there to give them as many skills as we can to get them on their way. We may not even see their successes when they are in front of us, but that does not mean they will not have success down the line.

Ever since Saturday the family has been in my thoughts more and more. I hope everything the older sister said was true. I hope one day the youngest is my vet and that a four year college goes well for all of them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Creating an Edible Ocean Floor

 One of my projects this fall has been to help homeschool my cousin's son. They are a military family and are headed overseas in a few months. Rather than start and stop another new school this fall we decided to try homeschooling. 

So when when were studying about the ocean floor and he jokingly said "We could make a model of this out of brownies and cake" there was no reason not to say sure, let's try it.

The worst thing that could happen would be that the project was a total disaster, but from a learning perspective, even if it looked frightening or never turned into an actual cake, he would still have to know the elements of the ocean floor in order to create a disastrous looking cake. We'd learn something in the process. So why not? It's oddly freeing to not have any time restrictions when planning a project. Of course, in this case we did need to worry about the over excited younger children (both my daughters and his brother) who were obviously fascinated and a bit horrified that we were absolutely destroying a cake like this. My two year old kept telling us "No! You don't cut cake like that! NO!" 

He drew out a model of what we were going to do, and then I baked two sheet cakes. One chocolate and one white with blue flood coloring. (I did not use enough blue food coloring though so the final outcome was a bit greenish. But that's more appropriate for ocean water anyway, right?)

Then he spent time figuring out how we were going to put the cakes together to reflect the ocean floor and water. In the end we cut the cakes in half so we had four blocks to work with. The bottom two layers of chocolate were the ocean floor, and then he cut into them to create the Continental shelf, slope, rise, and abysmal plain. From there he had to figure out how to make the blue cake fit onto the chocolate cake like a puzzle piece. 

Part of his plan was to use an upside down ice cream cone to reflect an underwater volcano and fit it into the cake. 

As we worked he also decided the cake needed waves on top, so we used some of the scraps of blue cake to put "waves" up above.

The end result was a fantastic cake that required not only a knowledge of the ocean floor but a large amount of vision, problem solving skills, and perseverance at set backs to create. Oh, and it was delicious. So there is that too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Teacher Influence. What happens when we find the hidden talents inside our students, and when we don't.

At this year's National Book Festival, my family gathered around the children's stage to hear Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewis read from their new book, Click, Clack, Surprise.*

The new book is delightful and my girls rocked back and forth with the rhythm and giggled at the silly baby duck's antics.

Toward the end of the talk, another child asked Doreen Cronin when she started writing. Cronin explained that she had been a very shy child, and although she had a lot to say, she often had not said it. Instead of expecting her to talk in class, her first grade teacher encouraged her to write down what she wanted to say. That was when she became a writer. First grade. She would write at home, adding extra homework to her plate.  As her first grade teacher watched this unfold, she told labeled Cronin a writer, which made that little first grader think of herself as a writer. That thought carried her through the rest of her life. In college she majored in journalist because she was a writer. She went to law school because law school was a place she could read and write and she was a writer. The choices she made in her life were shaped by the self-image her first grade teacher gave her of being a writer.

I hugged my five year old, hoping she picked up on the message that Doreen Cronin had not liked to talk in class and that was OK. I'm pretty sure at that moment she and her sister were wrapped up in tickling each other, but it does not matter. I heard it, and I can repeat the story to her all I want. It is OK to be quiet and thoughtful. Just find another way to share your thoughts. 

I was an extremely quiet child, and I see that playing out in my own daughter as well. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I did not have a teacher that accepted this character trait and found a strength hiding inside.

 In fourth grade my teacher decided that my quietness was unacceptable and was going to end with her. When she called on me she would walk outside the classroom and stand in the hallway, refusing to come back in until she had heard my loud voice. Let me tell you one way NOT to motivate a child to talk. All these years later I think about those moments and I feel the panic building inside me. Just the memory of that skinny woman standing in the hallway makes me never want to speak again. At the time I remember thinking, in pure anger and humiliation, that one day I would write a book to get back at this teacher who would only accept my answers if I yelled them loud enough for her to hear them outside the classroom. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I have not accomplished that goal yet. One day. Apparently, positive encouragement from teachers is a more powerful motivation than revenge.

There is power in her story for teachers. Instead of seeing her shyness as a weakness, or assuming she had nothing to say (another assumption teachers made about me over the years), Doreen Cronin's teacher found a hidden strength. She turned the quietness into a powerful positive force, that gave Cronin an identity that carried her throughout her life and influenced the choices she made.

In comparison, I spent my life fighting the message that what I had to say was not worth listening to because I said it so quietly, or infrequently. That because I did not speak up in class, I was not a valuable member of the classroom community. I did not go to law school because, if I am honest with myself, I saw that as a profession for those other kids. The confident, self-assured ones who thought quickly on their feet. I tried to find a safe place to land, one that would not require too many people looking at me or demanding that I be loud and different. 

It is amazing the power teachers have. Amazing, and terrifying. Those decisions we make when we are frustrated, the way we snap at kids who are on our last nerve, or how we interact with kids who we do not even consciously realize bother us, have lasting impacts on the little people in front of us. We have the power to form a future adult's self image. What we say to children sticks with them, long after our days with them end. When we mine for the positive under a child's weakness, we can create a long lasting impact for that child, who will go into adulthood knowing their strengths. When we break a child down without finding the positive under the "problem" we will do the exact same thing, except this time it is not an impact we want to have.

When I sat down to write this I was not planning on sharing about my own adventures as a quiet child. I just wanted to focus on the power Cronin's first grade teacher had on her. But I suppose something about the story struck a nerve. I obviously don't blame my fourth grade teacher for all of my life choices. I made those myself. But I can blame her for hating fourth grade, and perhaps the terror that struck me for years whenever I was asked to speak in class. In college I just told teachers that I was not going to participate. They could dock my participation grade or give me extra papers to write, but I would not talk. If I had to talk in class, I explained to them, I would become so fixated on what I was going to say that I would stop learning in the class. I would not pay attention to what else was being said. I was in their class to learn, and I truly wanted to take in everything everyone else was saying. So I would not be participating. Some teachers were very concerned, others accepted this as long as I was OK getting a B because I would not get my participation points. I was. As long as I did not have to talk, I would take anything.

Don't be my fourth grade teacher. Find the positive and bring it out of every child, even if they do not fit in with how you think a child should be. The world needs more authors like Doreen Cronin.

*I LOVE the Click, Clack, Moo series, probably more than an adult should love a children's book series. But there is so much you can do with the books. On face value they are silly books about unruly animals on a farm, who drive poor Farmer Brown crazy with their antics. On another level, they are perfect for getting budding readers engaged in a read aloud because of their repetitive text, which allow kids to "read" sets of text from memory. They can sit down with the book by themselves, or during a read aloud, and proudly recite "Click, Clack, MOO!" every time the phrase comes up in the text. It is perfect for teaching beginning concepts of print and encouraging those early literacy skills. On a whole other level, the books are strategic thinkers. Click, Clack, Moo and Giggle, Giggle, Quack are about the power of literacy and what a group of people (or animals) can do with an ability to write and non-violent protests. Duck for President is the perfect intro to presidential elections. Each book gives an opening for deeper discussion on particular topics. Or, if your readers are just too young for the seriousness, allows you to just have fun in with the text.