Big Dreams for the Year

Today was the first official day of my 19th year of teaching. (It’s not clear why teachers all headed back to school on a Friday this year. We’ve not done that before.) The start of the school year is exciting, terrifying, and joyful. Even this many years in there are so many unknowns (of course, changing to a new grade level could be a factor in that).


Sunrise at Monument Valley last summer. Fresh starts are amazing.


I want to get the big ideas organized in my head, the big things I want for my kiddos and myself this year. The details have to wait until we know each other and the big ideas may have to be revised, but I want to start off well and that means I need to be thinking ahead.

How will we get to know each other? How will I help ensure that the kids do far more talking than I do (both by shutting up and by making sure they know their voice is critical)? How will families be involved and welcomed into our classroom? How will I know I’m truly hearing them and what matters to them? How I will make sure they know how much I care for them?

My students will be eight-year-olds. They will still, mostly, be at an age where they will enjoy school and like their teachers. We have to work to screw that up. I have no intention of doing that.

But that’s a pretty low bar. I do want my students to enjoy school. I do want them to like me (whether that’s something I should want or not). I also want them to know they are valued at school. I want them to see themselves as powerful learners, thinkers, questioners, advocates, and teachers.

I want them to be readers and scientists and mathematicians and historians and writers and such as well. But mostly I want them to see the power in themselves. Without that, none of the rest will make much difference for them.

Crafting and Coding with Friends

Yesterday some friends came over for a crafting and coding happy hour. (I only managed to get pictures of the crafting because I was pretty consumed.) I love looking at these pictures of all the hands involved in creating a cloud for my classroom (and then a second one for a new teammate’s classroom). We even got some of the kids involved in putting the stuffing on the cloud. The lighted cloud looks a bit odd because I bought deeply discounted strings of lights from the Fourth of July that are red, white, and blue. No matter, I’m quite happy with my cloud. The credit for the vision and any knowledge I have for creating this goes to Jamila Monahan who made the one for our water show at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Cloud Making 2 Cloud Making 3 Cloud Making 7 Cloud MakingCloud Making 5   Cloud Making 4Cloud Making 6

In addition to creating two delightfully pink clouds, we played around with some coding using my Beebots, KIBO, and TurtleArt. The KIBO got some serious attention but I think TurtleArt was the most popular option. Here are a couple of the creations the kids coded.

C&JTAsun kate, a ma zing is not a word

Ways White Folks Can Help


My youngest with her two best friends from kindergarten. I want for those two darlings all I want for my own girl.

For the past eighteen years I’ve worked to become a better teacher. That’s taken a lot of different paths (National Board Certification, a masters degree, conference attendance, reading professional books alone and with colleagues, etc.) and I think it has all been helpful. I’ve realized, in the past few years however, that without a focus on the structural issues in our educational system and in our society that adversely impact students of color, none of that really matters. If our pedagogy is being practiced within a racist structure our students will still struggle. No matter how strong our teaching practices may be.

As a middle-class white woman I always feel uncomfortable with this conversation. I know how very privileged my life has been and how little I can truly understand the issues many others face. However, I also realize that it’s a privilege to stay quiet on this issue because my life and the lives of my own daughters aren’t being damaged by racism. If I stay quiet it’s because I’m uncomfortable. That’s a pathetic reason for silence.

I’ve been thinking about ways we white folks can step up, even if those ways are small. We’ve got to step out of our comfort zones and use our privilege in order to work towards a more equitable educational system and society.

  1. Seek out and share books with diverse characters. I am amazed at how few books have characters of color, especially if I am looking for books in which race is not the issue. There are some good books about racism and our history of fighting for civil rights. There are far fewer books with characters of color living their daily lives. Children of all races and backgrounds need to see themselves in the books they read and they need to see people who are different from them. Books are both mirrors and windows and both matter.
  2. Listen to students when they voice concerns or ask questions around these structural issues. Truly listen. Let them speak. Elevate their voices. Point them to resources to read or engage with to continue their questioning and learning.
  3. Seek out folks who are actively doing this work. Check out Educolor. Read Teaching Tolerance. Be open to hearing the stories and joining in.
  4. Participate in twitter chats. #Educolor happens monthly. #SoJustEdu is a hashtag worth following. Follow the folks you see with these hashtags.
  5. Be willing to work past your discomfort. When someone shares something racist or something that smacks of white privilege. Say so. Do so with kindness but speak up. Don’t allow a racist joke to go by with an awkward laugh. Silence is easiest, but it is harmful.

These are small steps to take. Far more will have to be done, of course, but small steps are better than none. And maybe taking small steps will encourage us to want to leap.

Thoughts on For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood


I’ve recently finished reading this book. If I had to pinpoint a target audience for it that would be middle school and high school teachers in urban settings. I’m not that. I’ll be teaching third graders this year in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My setting is fairly urban in many ways, but my students are overwhelmingly fairly recent immigrants, mostly from Honduras and El Salvador. There are a lot of differences between the world in which I teach and the world Emdin describes in this book.

That didn’t matter. It was still one of the most powerful professional books I’ve read in quite some time. My take away from the book was about the importance of getting to truly know your students and their community and valuing it. Too often teachers get that first step (far too often, sadly, I think that step is even missed) but view their students’ lives outside of school through a deficit model. Emdin makes the case for the value of all our students bring with them to school and how we can bring that into schools to benefit us all.

Fairly early in the book he says (on page 23):

In schools, urban youth are expected to leave their day-to-day experiences and emotions at the door and assimilate into the culture of schools.

I’d argue this is true far beyond urban youth. My recent immigrant students are expected to do the same. LGBTQ youth are expected to do the same. Any students who don’t fit the ‘ideal’ of middle-class, white American will be expected to do the same. Unfortunately, we often don’t even realize that is true. I certainly needed the reminder.

what lies beyond what we see are the deep stories, complex connections, and realities that factors like race, class, power, and the beliefs/presuppositions educators hold inhibit them from seeing. Teaching to who students are requires a recognition of their realities. (p. 25)

And similarly (page 42):

Our understandings of who was and wasn’t a good student were rooted less in our experiences with urban students and more on our perceptions of them, which were largely based on a flawed narrative.

What if we, the educators, the ones with power, were the ones to change? What we analyzed our own perceptions and biases and adapted to our students?

Possibly my favorite quote from the book (page 48):

I wondered why the ability to plan a lesson, and not the ability to connect with students, was the prerequisite for being a model teacher.

Content is king in our educational system today. Our students should be. The driving force behind everything we do should be our students. But it’s easier for it to be facts and skills rather than people.

When teachers engage in dialogues with students that privilege their unique voices, the students feel validated for who they are rather than who the teacher expects or desires them to be. (page 67)

Engaging in dialogue isn’t enough. We must do so in ways that truly elevates student voices rather than allowing them to simply participate as parrots.

As this book is about working with middle and high school students I am continuing to mull over how to adapt some of it for work with my third graders. The cogenerative dialogues and coteaching are two of the biggest for me.

Coteaching in this model is predicated on the fact that the teacher cannot fully meet the needs of students unless the students have an opportunity to show the teacher what they need and then demonstrate what good teaching looks like for them. (page 87)

And, finally (page 109):

The point is not to force everyone to be a part of the dominant culture, but rather to move everyone to be themselves together.

If you have not read this book I cannot recommend it enough. It was a surprisingly quick read as it is so well written. I’m jealous of friends who have had the chance to hear Christopher Emdin speak. The man has so much to teach us.

Building a Space for Us

As I head into my 19th year in the classroom I’m moving from kindergarten to 3rd grade. The past eight years have been spent with kindergartners and first graders and I have worked hard to have furniture that would be friendly for those kiddos. Over the years I’ve collected end tables and coffee tables that were just right heights for them. This allowed me to have spaces for two or three or four kids rather than just the large tables for six or more.

Birthday Cupcakes 5

In these pictures you can see a few of our small tables. We had five around our room last year.

Birthday Cupcakes 2

I realized Friday that these tables were not going to cut it for 3rd graders. No matter how much I love them, they are just too small.

The weekend was spent solving this problem. Right now my living room is full of Craig’s List purchases. I have two small dining room tables, one a basic square in black, the other a rectangle with a top of tiles (that’s going to be such fun!). I also picked up a couple of nice stools, one for me to use at our carpet/whole class area and the other for somewhere else in the room.

Wicker Stool

This is one. The other is a basic wooden stool.

I also got a footstool that opens up to store stuff (I think it’ll store our stuffed animals). This will go in our reading corner as another comfy spot for a kid or two.


It looks kinda like this, but more clearly used and loved.

Finally, I picked up a couple of lamps because I try to avoid ever turning on our overhead florescents. Then I decided that all these fun tables needed something better than the standard school chairs. One round table will be low enough for the kids to sit on the floor but I wanted something else for the two dining tables I picked up. I couldn’t find a good solution on Craig’s List so a trip to Ikea was in order.

Folding Chair

I picked up four of these.


I got three of these in black and three in white.

I wanted seating solutions that could easily be stacked or somehow put away so they aren’t in the way when the custodians clean. (I’m a pain in their butts in plenty of ways so I try to minimize what I can.)

The round table that will be low to the ground is a school table. I’ve also got some trapezoid tables available for the kids. I’m sure they’ll move things around as they desire so my goal is just to ensure they have things to move that are comfortable. I’d like our room not to be too standardized and industrial feeling.

Plus, I can’t wait to take all of this to school this week! New stuff is energizing!

(In case you’re interested, I think this all cost about $200.)


In Line 3

My district’s elementary school progress report has twelve standards in the section titled, Life, Work, and Citizenship Skills.

  • Takes responsibility for actions
  • Demonstrates active listening skills
  • Works effectively within a group
  • Resolves conflict effectively
  • Identifies, pursues, and reflects on goals
  • Follows directions
  • Exhibits organizational skills
  • Completes assignments on time
  • Uses time constructively
  • Is a respectful and contributing participant in school
  • Demonstrates self control
  • Follows established routines

In some ways these statements are pretty vague. But I fear the way they are typically interpreted is all about compliance. This list, which I’ve been using for nearly two decades to judge my students, really bothers me. There’s plenty on that list that I think is critical as life skills: setting goals, working with others, active listening, using time well. I need to do all of those things regularly.

If a student sets goals that don’t meet our expectations or fit our standards, what does that mean? If a student works with others but is loud or ‘hyper’ in doing so, how do see it? If a student uses time to follow passions or interests that don’t match our teaching, do we input a lower grade? If a student doesn’t show these twelve behaviors in the way we expect, do we recognize the child’s ability?

I fear, far too often, the way we view children at school is through a very narrow lens. If students aren’t compliant and walk the line we expect, can we recognize their brilliance and strengths?

Emotions are Key

For the final day of the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute we had a labyrinth. Our director got up early and created a labyrinth in a wonderful, shady, grassy area using sticks and stones. She also had a bunch of cards with phrases on them we could use, if we wished, as we walked the labyrinth. I have many, many thoughts on this but at the moment I’m focused on one thing I wrote yesterday during this time.

One of the phrases I took in my mind as I walked one time was expressions of gratitude can increase well-being. I repeated that again and again as I walked in and out of the labyrinth. Upon returning to my notebook, this is what I wrote.

How many of our feelings are self-fulfilling? I’ve read that making yourself smile can actually make you feel better.


from Jessica Lucia’s flickr

One of my plans this year is to have my students share when they notice a classmate being a ‘key to success’ at school. They’ll write down what they noticed at at the end of each day or week we’ll share them and post them in our room. Hopefully we’ll eventually have to take some down to make room for others and I figure kids can take home the ‘keys’ that are about them.

I believe this will help us build a caring, supportive community. Will the act of identifying and recognizing a classmate’s goodness also serve to make that child feel good? I think it will. I think the positive feelings for the both the one sharing and the one being recognized is part of what builds community.

This has me wondering if there are other ways to increase positive feelings, both individually and collectively. What are the ways we increase joy in our classrooms? What about feelings of generosity? I’m sure there are things we do consciously and subconsciously. I’d like to be thinking about and more aware of them.

People are Basically Good

Sitting here for our final morning together at the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute I am reflecting on a quote I noticed on one participant’s water bottle (I’ll find wisdom anywhere!).

Your outlook on life is a direct reflection on how much you like yourself.

Earlier this week, another participant had us move around the room based on our agreement or disagreement with several statements: Love lasts forever. Violence is sometimes necessary. Students should be required to speak English. For those three statements I was somewhere in the middle of the continuum between agree and disagree. I think love can last forever. I’m not certain it always does. I want to say that violence is never necessary, but I’m afraid that isn’t true. Students definitely need to learn English, but that takes time and functioning only in a foreign language is exhausting in many ways.

The one other statement was: People are basically good.

I had no trouble with where to stand for that statement. Immediately I moved to the agree sign. I definitely believe that people are basically good. Which is not to say that all people are good. Clearly there are evil people, but I believe they are few and far between. I believe that most people are good but some have been scarred and warped in ways that have damaged them.

My belief about the inherent goodness of people is solid. What I’m wondering now is about the initial quote here, the one I found on a water bottle. Your outlook on life is a direct reflection of how much you like yourself. Does my belief that people are good suggest that I like myself more than someone who doesn’t believe people are good? Most of our group was standing near the agree sign, but not all of us. Some were spaced throughout and a few were by the disagree sign. I’ve only had a week with these folks so I don’t know them well, but I’m not convinced the ones at the opposite end from me dislike themselves.

On the other hand, if I accept that statement as true, can changing one’s outlook on life change how they feel about themselves? Can changing how one feels about themselves change their outlook on life? I do not have answers but I am fascinated by these questions.

Demonstration Lesson Reflections

Yesterday I gave my demonstration lesson for this summer’s Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute. It’s a demo lesson I’ve done quite a few times over the past five years. It’s been tweaked and reconsidered and reorganized during that time.

I typically reflect on presentations I give, but I don’t usually write about those reflections. I’m feeling moved to do so this time for some reason. I don’t now if it’s because it’s the writing project (I’ve done this demo lesson at previous ISIs so that seems unlikely) or if yesterday’s presentation gave me more to consider.

The first two-thirds of the presentation involve all of us doing some writing, talking with partners, and talking all together. The last third is mostly me talking at everyone else. Yeah, that should have been a clue.

The first two-thirds felt really good. We had some interesting conversations and it felt engaging. The final third felt icky. It wasn’t as tied to the first two-thirds as it should have been and I didn’t make connections the way I should have. My excuses are that I felt rushed for time and I’ve been sick so I’m not at my best. But that’s all those are, excuses.

As I reviewed the presentation beforehand and reworked some things I clearly didn’t give it as much time and thought as I should have. That’s on me. This will, hopefully, serve as reminder to myself for the future.


from ms. Tibbetts’ flickr