Schools Serve All Kids

School boards are often only discussed when we are frustrated by their actions. That’s certainly been true for me for most of my career. I like and respect most of the members of my school board and I have been to several board meetings over the years. (Twice to celebrate my National Board Certification, when I certified and when I renewed, once to celebrate being nominated for Teacher of the Year in my district, and once to speak to the board about technology use in the classroom. I’m clearly not active when it comes to the school board.) Mostly I think about the board when they do something I don’t like.

I teach in a very large, very wealthy district just outside of Washington, D.C. It’s not a district that typically moves quickly or with great innovation. I think our sheer size hampers that but we also tend to be somewhat conservative in our decision making. That has frustrated me on many occasions.

100 Day Group 4

My kinders this year. I don’t know if they are straight, gay, trans, or what. They are my kids and they all deserve to be cared for and safe.

 

At this moment, however, I am thrilled with my school board. Last year they updated our nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity. That caused something of an uproar and the school board was sued by a student and a conservative activist. The suit was dismissed. That was an impressive step forward, especially in an area that rarely gets out in front of controversial issues.

This week the board amended our school handbook. Changing our policy was good, but also pretty meaningless. There wasn’t really any meat on those bones. Changing the school handbook means that there are clear ways for people to take action if (when) discrimination based on gender identity happens. Needless to say there are some unhappy people. This was not a unanimous board decision, it passed 9 to 3.

You can read quotes in the Washington Post article from board members who were against this change. Their quotes read as though they are concerned about how this will be implemented, what will it actually look like. I think that’s a question anytime you change policy or regulations. Stating the new expectation isn’t going to specifically address every possible question, instance, or issue. That will happen over time. But it certainly isn’t a reason to leave these students, these children, at the mercy of the discrimination and bullying they have faced and are facing.

As a school system we serve ALL children. We must teach them AND keep them safe. It doesn’t matter how you personally feel about homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender, or anything. If you work in a school system you serve every child there and you must teach them and keep them safe. If you can’t do that because of your personal beliefs, then it’s time to rethink your job choice.

Let Them Get Away With It

As a society we seem to be very concerned about somebody getting something we don’t. I think that’s a big piece of Trump’s popularity. I’m guilty of this when cars don’t merge when the sign says to merge and at the last minute they want over. I don’t want to let them in. Why should they get to go ahead of me when I waited in line? But really, what does it cost me to let that go and let them in?

Merging

from Marika Luders’ flickr

 

As a society we don’t seem to like it when somebody ‘gets away with’ something. I see this with teachers when they are sure a child’s excuse is just that, an excuse, not a valid reason for a late assignment or lack of preparedness. I see this with teachers when they are sure a child’s behavior is defiant or purposefully challenging rather than a response to anxieties or stresses.

Let’s think this through. If I’m sitting in traffic because we all need to merge and I merged when I saw the sign but others didn’t, what does it cost me to let them in? A minute or two extra maybe? Depending on how many people wait and get let in. If I don’t let anyone in what do I gain? An extra few seconds? Some of those people are probably jerks, rushing ahead and not wanting to wait. But maybe some are distracted by an unhappy child in the car or thoughts of an illness in the family or a serious work stress happening. Maybe that’s why they didn’t get over. Why not presume the positive and let them in?

With children maybe they are conning us to turn something in late or get a second chance. Maybe their behavior is just them being little jerks. (We’re all jerks sometimes.) What if we presume the positive? What if I respond with patience and generosity rather than with frustration and anger? If they are truly struggling with something then my response is the right thing to do. If they’re being little snots then they were shown a little love. Everyone could do with a little love. Even the snots.

If we regularly respond to children as if they are conning us or being jerks we teach them something significant about our beliefs in them and about how to treat others. I believe they will quickly learn that they way to treat others isn’t with kindness, patience, generosity, love, but with anger or cynicism. We’ll see that in them quickly. They’ll respond to us as we’ve responded to them. It becomes quite the vicious cycle. We respond without care so they respond without care.

By second grade children will have this pretty well figured out. They may not be able to put it into words, but their actions will show us their understanding. It’s awfully hard to convince children once they’ve internalized expectations of being treated with a lack of respect or care. Once children have learned this message we have to work doubly or triply hard to convince them that we believe in them, that we care for them, that we respect them. We should make it our aim every day to show them we truly do. Even, no especially, the cons and the snots.

Ask Then Shut Up

I’ve come to the conclusion that when teachers are doing their job exceptionally well they aren’t saying much but they are thinking a lot. That’s not exactly ground-breaking (and yet in some ways it is) but hear me out.

 

 

Question

from Stefan Baudy’s flickr

 

I believe the most important thing we can do for students is ask them good questions, questions that push them to wonder and struggle. Questions that allow them to build castles of understanding for themselves. Then we shut up.

The challenge is knowing what the right question is to ask. To know this a teacher needs to know what she is trying to teach and know it exceptionally well. She needs to be able to identify common areas of confusion or misconception students frequently face. She also needs to know her students exceptionally well. She needs to know what that student or group of students already knows and can use to continue building that castle of understanding.

She’s got to ask that question and then allow the students to wonder and struggle. And build. And possibly tear down and rebuild. Sometimes the building won’t be what the teacher expects. Sometimes it will be better. Sometimes it will have flaws. She has to be willing to accept that.

I believe if we teachers spent more time thinking about how to ask the right question and less time thinking about detailed lesson plans or cute activities or even assessments we’d be in far better shape. Our students are amazingly brilliant young people. Ask them the right question (and there’s not just one right question) and they will far exceed our expectations.

Defining Numbers

Yesterday I completed a sprint triathlon (sprint makes it sound fast when what it really is is shorter). There are a lot of numbers involved in a race like this one.

"South Riding Triathlon 2015"

First, there are the numbers that are written on my body. On the back of one calf is my age. Well, my age as of December 31st of this year, my race age for this season.* Also written on me is my race number, written on both arms and both legs. Yesterday my number was 633, out of something in the 800s. That means I’m not a fast swimmer. There are 632 people racing who are faster swimmers than I am (at least based on the swim time I gave the race organizers).

Then there are the numbers that say how long the race took me. Numbers for each leg of the race, the quarter mile swim, the twelve mile bike ride, and the 5K run. There are also times for each of the transitions, the time it takes to go from the swimming to the biking and from the biking to the running. My numbers for all of those things yesterday were not good ones. For a variety of reasons I’m actually okay with that.

A couple more numbers – this was the 9th year in a row that I’ve completed this race and it was the 19th sprint triathlon I’ve completed.

I believe if you looked at the race results in the way that we look at standardized test scores I would have failed. Because the race results show the times for each piece of the race but they don’t tell you anything more than that. They don’t tell you that I was sick on Friday but still wanted to do the race (I’ve done it every year, dang it!). They don’t tell you how many races I’ve completed.

The idea that those numbers define me in some people’s eyes is unfortunate. Luckily that fact doesn’t really impact me. It doesn’t change what I know about myself. It doesn’t change my next steps. It doesn’t change that I completed the race.

Our students are in a very different position. The numbers define them in so many ways. The numbers can impact their placement in classes. The numbers can influence the way their teachers see them and the expectations that are set for them. The numbers can determine whether or not students get to take elective classes that interest them or if they must take more remediation instead.

Our students are far more than numbers. It seems ridiculous to me that we have to keep saying this. Of course, many people say it but actions don’t always show it. Our students should know that we know they are far more than numbers.

 

 

*I really don’t like this number because when people pass me on the bike or the run I can tell they are ten or twenty years older than I am. I am not a highly competitive person but it hurts a little when someone who has a decade or two on me passes me with ease.

Perceiving and Believing

I learned a few things about myself today:

  1. I get far more easily annoyed at adults than I do at children (so I may be in the right profession).
  2. I have some serious hot button issues and one pertains to people not analyzing or reflecting on their perceptions of others, especially their perceptions of children.
  3. I can fly to full-on-cranky in a very short period of time. (This is probably not a surprise to my husband or children or parents or sister or close friends or anyone who has had to work closely with me ever…)
  4. I don’t like confrontation. But the older I get the more willing I am to do it when I think it’s important.

I’m changing grade levels for next year which means I’ve been talking about kids and classes with teachers at my current grade level, at my grade level for next year, and at the grade level that includes the kids I’ll have next year. Plus, I’ve been talking with colleagues and friends who don’t fit any of those categories. That’s a lot of talking about kids and classes.

Sometimes those conversations cause me some pain. I like and respect all of these people. I believe, I know, these people care for their students. But the language that is used to talk about children doesn’t always show that. Kids are discussed as being ‘bad’ or ‘mean girls’ or ‘trouble’. I worry that people use these words without thinking about what they are communicating. I believe this language needs to be carefully thought about, reflected on, analyzed, to truly recognize what we’re saying and what we mean.

Perception

from Stacy Clinton’s flickr

 

The way we perceive people says so much about what we believe. And that impacts what we do and how we treat others. This is why reflecting on our perceptions is so critical. Perceptions aren’t reality. They are how a specific person sees reality. That’s the best we can do as human beings. Reality is going to look different to different people.

What we can do is take some time to inspect the way we are seeing reality, to consider our own reality. We can ask ourselves if we are sure that we are seeing, be it a mean girl or a trouble making girl or, even, a good girl, is what is deeply true. I think we will often find that what we are seeing is far too simplified for the truth. We let our perceptions reduce our reality to something that is easy for us to face, easy to explain, easy to deal with.

That’s dangerous when we are talking about kids. A teacher who believes she has a ‘bad kid’ in her class is going to respond to that child in very specific ways. Ways that are most likely going to increase the ‘bad’ behaviors rather than decrease them. If, instead, a teacher stopped to consider why she believed that child is a ‘bad kid’, she might see a child who is looking for attention or going through a stressful time or dealing with issues with classmates or a whole host of other possibilities. The responses to that ‘bad kid’ are likely to change when that happens.

Labeling children is dangerous. Labeling children based on our perceptions of reality is even more dangerous. Thinking back to point #4 above, I am going to speak up when I hear children described in these ways. I don’t plan to attack anyone, but I do want people, teachers especially, to step back and think about the meaning behind their words when they talk about children.

Writing In and About Nature

Nature Writing 2 Nature Writing 3

For a few weeks we were debating if it was time to begin building an ark. As a result, we spent far too much time inside. When we finally had a gorgeous day the wonderful instructional assistant with whom I work convinced me that we should head outside for writing or science. On the fly I decided we should try something I did with my first graders a few years ago. We wrote about nature. Everyone picked a topic – trees, butterflies, grass, clouds, leaves, squirrels, birds, etc. Then they wrote a book about it. We grabbed clipboards and pens and headed out. It was still muddy but totally worth being out there.

 

Nature Writing 4 Nature Writing 5 Nature Writing

 

Before heading out we wrote a book about “Tres” together (spelling is clearly done by sound quite frequently). The next day I illustrated the book we wrote together. Illustrating is not something I feel confident about doing so I’m surprisingly pleased with how this book turned out.

Tres Book

It’s bound with a small stick and a rubber band. (I wish I could remember where I originally saw this idea to credit back but I have no idea.)

Tres Book 2 Tres Book 3 Tres Book 4

A few kids finished their books last week. Only one has remembered to find a stick for binding. As more remember and finish the ones who aren’t moving as quickly will likely be quite motivated to see their friends’ books.

A Tale of Two Pyramids

A few days ago I wrote about the students in my school district who had earned scholarships from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and the schools they attend. The same email that brought that to my attention also mentioned the 55 schools in my district that had won awards for excellence from the governor.

I’ve looked at all 55 of the schools, elementary, middle, and high schools, through several different lenses. As I debated how best to dig into the data I graphed it in multiple ways. I finally settled on comparing two pyramids (a pyramid includes a high school and all the schools that feed to that high school). For the first group below, I took the first school on the list of award winners. It is a middle school so it’s actually the second one on my graph. The first school in each group is the high school, then the middle school, then the elementary schools in alphabetical order.

I looked at all of the schools in that award-winning middle school’s pyramid. This includes one high school, one middle school (the award winner), and six elementary schools. This happens to be the same number of schools as the pyramid in which I teach, so I graphed that one as well.

The blue lines are the percentage of students who receive free or reduced price meals. The orange lines are the percentage of students who are labeled Limited English Proficient.

 

Two Pyramids

For this first grouping, the middle school and one of the elementary schools are award winners. For the second grouping, my pyramid, not one of the schools is an award winner. I could have chosen to look at pyramids that have more schools winning this award (the pyramid in which we live and our daughters attend schools has at least four of the eight schools winning this award and is nowhere near the wealthiest in our district). I also could have chosen a needier pyramid than the one in which I teach. I chose the first award winning school and my pyramid because I didn’t want to go to extremes or cherry pick. I simply wanted to a quick glance at how much zip code can impact schools.

(In case you are interested, the school in which I teach is #14 on the graph.)

Looking Closely at My School District

I’ve barely begun the research and processing of the data I’ve collected about this so keep that in mind. I get a weekly email from my school district. I believe this is information that goes out to parents and others across the county. Typically I skim through the email and move on. Today I was struck by two bits and followed the links to more information.

One was a list of 44 students in my district who were named scholarship winners from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (which I didn’t realize was a corporation, but that’s a whole other line of thought). I was curious to see which schools have winners. My district has 25 high schools as well as two alternative high schools. Nine of those high schools have winners. One, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (a magnet high school) has 34 of the winners. Two other schools have two winners each. I was curious to look at the demographics of these schools, specifically at the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunches and the percentage of students who are learning English.

TJ Rotunda

A new addition to the magnet high school in our district.

 

The magnet high school, with so many of the winners, has 2% of students receiving free or reduced price lunches and under 1% of students who are limited English proficient. The other schools percentages of students receiving free or reduced price lunches are 2, 9, 10, 11, 13, 16, 26, and 40%. (That 40% is pretty impressive and is the high school I attended many years ago.) The limited English proficient percentages are 1, 4, 5 (three schools), 6, 9, and 20%.

In comparison, the high school my current students will attend has 55% of students receiving free or reduced price lunches and 22% of students who are limited English proficient. The students at my former school will attend a high school with 57% receiving free or reduced price lunches and 22% of students who are limited English proficient.

I’m not sure what I’m taking from this, but it’s been fascinating to look at schools across my district. I may need to take some time to graph data from all our high schools and compare those with winners. We’ll see.

The other bit I clicked on was about the 52 schools (out of just over 200) in my district that won Virginia Index of Performance awards. Fifty-two different schools means I will have to take a bit more time to figure out what I think I can learn from that data. One thing I did learn is that there are multiple schools in my district with fewer than one percent of students receiving free and reduced price lunches. Given that I work at a school in which 88% of students do, I found that quite surprising.

Winning the Cranky Teacher Award

I was a super cranky teacher yesterday. I’m not sleeping well and my back is bothering me. My kinders are not being kind to each other (lots of bad names being said to others and exclusionary behaviors). One kiddo drew all over a table with a crayon. Kids are climbing on things in our classroom. They aren’t listening. It’s testing season. The big kids are taking our state standardized tests and I’m in the midst of reading and math assessments with my kinders. It all adds up to a seriously cranky teacher.

Cranky

from Sue Globensky’s flickr

 

Being cranky is a bit self-fulfilling, at least for me. I feel cranky, for any or all of the reasons above. Feeling cranky annoys me because I don’t treat others around me well and that makes me crankier. The cycle just goes on.

The last thing I did yesterday with my kinders was read What Are You So Grumpy About? It made us all laugh which was a far better way to wrap up our day than me biting kids’ heads off. I left school knowing that I couldn’t come back this morning like this.

I woke up, after not sleeping well again, and realized I couldn’t meet a friend at the gym because my back was in too much pain. That did not start my day off well. I’m sitting in my dark, quiet classroom trying to figure out how to turn myself around.

That’s the key, I think. I need to turn MYSELF around. The kids may come in still saying mean things and coloring on tables and climbing on chairs. I can’t control them. I can control me. The question is, what am I going to do today to make this a day that works for me? If I can do that it may positively impact my kids and their behaviors might change.

Smile

from Rob Lee’s flickr

 

Research shows that smiling, even if one doesn’t feel happy, makes one feel better. That’s my first step, keep smiling. No matter what. Second step, look for the positives and celebrate them. When the kids are all looking out the window at the birds on our birdfeeder, I want to stop and enjoy it all together. When the kids are laughing and getting out of control because they’ve found something hilarious that I, as an adult, totally don’t get, I’m going to try and share their joy rather than stomp on it.

I’m going to remember that we are a community, practically a family at this point, with all the good and bad that entails. It’s far more good than bad. I just need to see it, notice it, recognize it, and enjoy it.

Constructing Definitions for Shapes

In kindergarten in my state our kiddos need to be able to identify and describe rectangles, squares, triangles, and circles. We’re using the Frayer model to explore each shape. Rectangle was first. The kids were great with sorting shapes and pretty quickly identified that rectangles have four sides and four angles. They couldn’t determine what made rectangles different from the other shapes here with four sides and angles.

Shape Defining 4

I decided to walk away for the day. The next day we started off with a Which One Doesn’t Belong. (I love, love, love the Which One Doesn’t Belong activities. I’ve shared them with multiple teachers with whom I’ve worked and the love is growing.)

Shape Defining 3

We had some great conversations about these shapes and it helped us think in some new ways. (Also, it’s wonderful to do an activity like this in which there is no wrong answer.)

I then added some new four-sided, four-angled shapes to help us identify what makes rectangles special.

Shape Defining 5

We were able to recognize that the sides of the rectangle are special in some way. It took some great conversation to narrow it down. Right angles was a bit more challenging but we got there too.

This was tough for me. Stopping, breathing, and thinking about how to help students without just telling them the characteristics of a rectangle. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to decide when to keep waiting for students, when to push them, and when to back off. How do you know when to tell students something and when do you give them more opportunity to work on it on their own?