Veterans Day

Although I work in the suburbs of Washington, DC, an area in which many people have Veterans Day as a holiday, my school system does not. Yesterday, for the however-manyth-time I read Eileen Spinelli‘s While You Are Away to my students to honor that day.

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The book is told through the eyes of three different children as they talk about a parent who is away, serving in a branch of the military. The children exude love for their parents, both the one away and the one with them. They also clearly miss the parent serving and long for their return. The parents have no part in the story telling but the pictures show them serving, mostly going about their daily lives in their work away. At the end, all three families are reunited.

I read this book every year because it helps children who do not have this experience to gain a sense of the lives of military families. I live in an area with many families who do have this experience, but my students typically do not. They may not realize it, but they have teachers with spouses deployed and serving abroad.

I also love this book because it quietly pushes readers beyond the typical. One of the parents serving abroad, flying a ‘fast plane’ as the child says, is a woman. One of the parents serving is Black. The children missing their parents talk about things they want to do again with them and these are not limited by gender norms. They share things like cooking and gardening that they want to do with their dads.

The book feels real and easily accessible to children while also broadening their horizons in a variety of ways. I’ve loaned it out to other teachers for Veterans Day many times (and purchased it again when it’s been passed on and lost). Right now there are two copies in my classroom, ready for rereading each year.

Post-Election Day

As you may have noticed, last week was an election. For all the years I’ve been teaching that week has been designated for parent-teacher conferences. The Monday and Tuesday are teacher workdays. Two years ago that meant Wednesday was rough. This year Wednesday was a bit uncertain. I had some positive feelings and some disappointments.

I had planned for us to talk during our social studies time about what it means to be an elected official and what characteristics we’d like for those people to have. We read Lane Smith’s Madam President, a fun look at the various roles and jobs a president takes on. It gave us a nice way in to think about the things an elected official has to do to serve constituents. I was impressed with the list my students created.

Later in the day we prepared to read the next nonfiction book in our ongoing Mock Orbis work. The book I had chosen was Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-InsBefore reading I shared the idea that elected officials can work to improve our society but they aren’t the only ones. Any of us can do so. Then I read this beautiful book by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. At the end of the book my students broke out in applause.

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Before this book I knew nothing about Clara Luper. This book presented Luper and her students as regular people, people with whom we could identify. I have no doubt my students could imagine themselves in the shoes of the students in this book. I, on the other hand, am clearly not a Clara Luper, but she does inspire me. I am grateful to Rhuday-Perkovich for telling this story. (And if it were up to me, this very well might be the Orbis winner for this year…)

Reason I’m Awesome, #6

Every month I (try to) invite families to come into our classroom to do something with us. In September I usually invite them to join us first thing in the morning for our morning meeting. It lets them see how their child starts their school day and be a part of it. We’ve had families join us to create art, play math games, share our writing, and more. I try to schedule these invitations for different times throughout the day because I know the majority of the adults in our families work. Their work schedules are not all the same so offering a variety of options throughout the year gives everyone (hopefully) some opportunity to join us.

Last night our school book fair opened. It seemed like the right time for an evening event so I invited families to come and read with their children. In the invitation I included information about the evening book fair hours so that they could do that as well, if they wished. I shared my plans with others on my hallway and two colleagues decided to jump in with me on this.

In my classroom just over half my students came with some of their family. Some had visited the book fair and couldn’t wait to dive into their new books. Others grabbed their book boxes, ready to share what they’ve been reading with their family.

The other two teachers and I had ordered pizzas and gotten juice for the evening. (It’s tough to invite families to come to school in the evening and not impact dinner time so I try, if I can, to just take away that stress.) Pizzas were eaten, juice was drunk, and many, many books were read.

We no longer have a Back to School Night (we do all of that stuff at our Open House before school starts) so I took this opportunity to give families a magnet for their fridge with the school phone number, my email address, and our class website where we post pictures regularly. I also gave every family three to six photos of their child at school in the first couple of months.

Mom and kid are reading together while big brother looks at the photos I gave them. Dad showed up a little later when he got off work.

 

This kid wanted to share some writing we had done this year with his mom. They did a lot of laughing together all evening.

This family got to the book fair before joining us so the older sister had a new book she could’t wait to read. (I taught her two years ago.)

 

The pizza was a hit!

This kid came with her older sister because mom had to work later. Dad showed up mid-way when he was able to get there. I invite ‘families’ rather than ‘parents’ because I know families don’t all look the same.

I don’t want to teach pre-schoolers but having them there last night was an absolute joy.

The chance to share our classroom, our work, and our community with families is important to me. They are a huge part of the growth my students will make this year and I want them to know I value  them and that we are a team (me, the family, and the student). Events like this give me the opportunity to talk with families without the formal structure of parent-teacher conferences. It helps build relationships that will benefit all of us all year.

No Halloween Hangover Here

This morning we had our first hands down conversation in science. (Hands down conversations are ones in which the kids talk without raising their hands and being called on. Ideally I’m not in the conversation at all.) I’d been trying to figure out a good question to drive this conversation and wrap up our first science unit. I finally landed on this one:

Immediately my third graders were off and rolling with the conversation. For about 10 minutes they talked about ways we’re similar and different to animals and reasons we need animals to survive. They agreed with each other and referenced things that had been said by others. It was a pretty good conversation.

Below are the notes I took on the conversation. I learned the basics of this note taking style from Junior Great Books many years ago. (I haven’t used Junior Great Books in more than a decade but this way of recording conversations has stuck with me.) I’ve added to my knowledge about this thanks to Alexis Wiggins and her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussions Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders. The students’ names go around the group based on where they are sitting. The lines through the middle show the flow of the conversation. The notes along the outside are quick records of what was said.

After 10 minutes I jumped in when it got quiet for a second. I try to avoid jumping in but decided it was worth it in this instance. (I think it’s the first time I’ve jumped in during a hands down conversation this year. I’m never certain if it was the right decision. Just as I’m never certain if not jumping in is the right decision.)

On the back of my notes I made a quick note about my input in the conversation. I told the kids I had noticed two big ideas being discussed: our similarities and differences with animals and our need for animals to survive. I then asked, “Given these ideas you’ve discussed, what does that mean we, as humans, need to do?”

They were off and running again. For the next 10 minutes or so, they talked about a variety of things we bear responsibility for. Such as not throwing trash on the ground where animals might eat it and die. And not throwing trash in the ocean where fish can eat it and then bigger fish eat them and they all die. (One kid connected that to a food chain.) One student discussed how we need to be careful about using paper because we don’t want to cut down too many trees because animals need the trees for their homes. They discussed the danger of extinction for some animals and how that hurts us.

By the end of the conversation 14 of my 19 students had spoken. That means the ones who frequently talk (mostly the kids all sitting on the left-hand side in my notes above) held back some and gave others space to talk. One kid mentioned to me, on the way to lunch, how excited she was because this was the most she’d talked in a conversation this year. (I think she spoke twice.)

I finally had to jump in and stop them so that we could get ready for lunch. But I knew they weren’t really ready to stop so I had them turn and talk to a buddy about anything else they’d wanted the chance to discuss. Here’s a quick snippet of that.

I took my kids to lunch on a total high from this. I told them how impressed I was with their conversation skills and with the deep thinking they did around this science topic. It’s been more than ten hours now and I’m still on a bit of a high.

 

Reason I’m Awesome, #5

I am addicted to books. I own far more than I’ve read or could ever manage to read (and we got rid of a significant number of books and about half our bookshelves when we moved a few years ago). I utilize my public library system frequently and with great passion. To the extent that I check out about twice as many books (or maybe three times as many) as I read. Far too often I’m returning books I haven’t cracked open.

As one example of this, these are the two packages that arrived at my house yesterday.

A book I couldn’t put on hold at the library but think might be a good read aloud for my class and a pair of leggings covered with book spines. Yup, a serious obsession with books.

The benefit to that obsession is an enormous classroom library.

That obsession also means my love and energy around books is clear to my students. This afternoon one of my students brought Real Friends over to me saying that she had finished it. I looked a little perplexed so she reminded me that some pages were falling out and I had promised to fix it when she finished. I thanked her and took the book. A few minutes later she came back to see if she could take it to another girl in our class because she wanted to read it. I immediately taped up pages and delivered it.

My students are sharing books with each other, passing them around. I know if I book talk a book at least some students will want to read it. I didn’t know that they would begin that process on their own without any support from me.

When I do book talks, usually two or three times each week, we put a post-it note on the cover of the book and list the students who want to read it. When the first person finishes it, they pass it on to the next name on the list. And on and on as needed. I’ve seen students do this on their own this year.

I believe my obsession with books means my students are more passionate readers. That makes it all worthwhile.

Book Review: Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

My oldest daughter is 15 and a sophomore in high school. This puts her about a year behind Moss, the main character in Mark Oshiro’s Anger is a Gift. She lives on the opposite coast (he’s in Oakland, CA and she’s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.). Her school is majority white and overwhelmingly students of high socioeconomic status. The school Moss attends is definitely neither of those things. Moss is Black. My child is white. Moss is gay. My child is straight. Seemingly they have nothing in common. However, within the first few pages of Anger is a Gift I knew it was a book she should read as Moss faces serious challenges with anxiety, something my daughter knows well. I know very little about the author, Mark Oshiro, but he either has faced anxiety himself or he knows it through someone close to him as his descriptions and explanations of what Moss faces are beautifully done.

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Moss’s father was killed by a police office several years before this book takes place. Moss’s school now has police presence and metal detectors. The issues of police brutality and police violence are front and center in this book and Oshiro doesn’t pull punches (at least to my naive eyes). One character realizes, late in the book, has much she didn’t truly understand the lives of her friends in West Oakland. The reader is right there beside her. Oshiro paints a vivid picture of life in many cities in the US for people of color. The picture is not only vivid but it is also multi-dimensional. Friendships, family, falling in love, and daily routines (like a haircut) are all a part of Moss’s life. No matter what, however, the shadow of the police and their power is always there.

The book is compelling. The characters are wonderful. Moss, his mother, the boy he meets on the train in the beginning, his friends, the people in his community, his teachers, they all get a chance to be seen and heard in this book. I fell in love with them.

Moss and his friends are frustrated and angry about the police presence and metal detectors in their school. The book centers around that and the choices they make. It’s a first novel for Oshiro and it isn’t perfect. But its flaws, its imperfections are no greater than the flaws and imperfections in reality and in our lives. They are small speed bumps in the book. Small missteps in an important story told well.

If I had read this book two years ago (which I couldn’t as it wasn’t out then) I would have questioned the representation of many of Moss’s friends. When it comes to sexuality they run across the spectrum. Two years ago that would have felt forced for me. With a daughter in high school that is no longer true. Her friend group, aside from being mostly white, reminds me a lot of Moss’s. Oshiro’s portrayal felt right to me, based on that experience.

I have long thought beginnings and endings are hard to write. The beginning of Anger is a Gift is wonderful. The ending is pretty darned good. Not perfect, but I’m not sure how it could have been better without being a book that the reader would hate at the end. Oshiro walked a fine line between the reality faced by people of color and the need for some hope and optimism for young readers.

I don’t write book reviews very often. Many books I read that touch me are books that are being discussed everywhere and I don’t see what I have to add to the discussion. I haven’t seen as much talk about Anger is a Gift and that surprises me. It’s a book that should be read widely.

Interestingly enough, I finished the book last night and then finally listened to this brief podcast on discussing race in the classroom this morning. It is a short discussion between Larry Ferlazzo and Marian Dingle and it’s been an open tab for me since it happened (I’m bad at listening to things or watching videos – I’m good at reading stuff). It’s only ten minutes and it would be worth far longer than that of your time. It reminded me of Anger is a Gift in many ways and especially with the windows it opened for me.

Some October Readings

October is often a bit of a low point for me (and maybe many teachers). We’re past the first few weeks of the school year so the excitement and energy of the newness is gone. We’re settling into routines and at the same time it’s getting cold outside and sunlight is seriously waning. It can make things feel tough.

It has made me extra grateful for all of the amazing writing people have been sharing this month.

from Crystal Marie Lopez’s flickr

That look of awe is how I feel reading all of these awesome pieces.

Jessica Lifshitz is often a favorite of mine for how thoughtfully she thinks things through and for the phenomenal work she is doing with her students. This piece, Who Will We Raise?, is timely and thought-provoking. She writes about some courageous people in the news recently and how we can help our students become change makers.

We need to move away from teaching blind compliance. We need to move away from teaching a history of our country that depends solely on the narrative of white men in America. We need to move away from teaching the value of only one language and one culture. We need to move away from lessons that teach our students that only one type of life is worthy enough to be brought into our classrooms through the books that we read and the curriculum that we cover. We have to stop pretending that this job is not political and start realizing that we have a world to save and good humans to raise.

Our society has real trouble with mental health. (We have some problems with physical health as well, but far more with mental health.) Leah Tams wrote an absolutely beautiful piece about this that should be widely read in order to have a clearer perspective on mental health.

I’m writing because even though transparency and mental health have come a long way during my lifetime, it’s important to constantly remain open and supportive about mental health problems.

I am loving the #BuildYourStack posts and hashtag from NCTE. This specific one added to my ‘books to be purchased’ list. I own about half of these and I clearly need them all.

Kevin Hodgson is another favorite. He never ceases to amaze me with all he is doing for his own personal learning and for his students as well as the discipline with which he writes on a daily basis. It is impressive. I read his book reviews carefully as he has never steered me wrong. Hey, Kiddo is on the way to my house thanks to this review.

There’s a real spirit of fighting against the odds in this story, and of finding the people who will be there to support you along the way. If you are lucky. For surely, just as Krosoczka’s story shows how far he came with a mother with a heroin addiction and a father who did not reach out to him until his late teen years, there are so many kids — they’re in our classrooms if we look close enough — who are struggling without the support Krosoczka was able to get from his grandparents and extended family.

Another frequent favorite (thank goodness for all these awesome people writing) is Sherri Spelic. I’m not going to quote anything here because I think it’s a post that significantly benefits from reading in its entirety. It is a piece I read feeling a massive sense of connection. I’ve never met Sherri in person but that hasn’t stopped me from feeling close to her when I read her words.

Peter Anderson is someone I knew in person before I began reading him online. As I rarely see him in person I am glad to have him in this way. He has frequently mentioned and written about Peter Elbow’s book, Writing Without Teachers. I loved the book when I read it but whenever Peter writes about it I realize how little I really got from my read. This post is about conferring with writers, something I do regularly but with inconsistent success.

This is where I try to respond to the piece as a reader. I ask what’s gonna happen next. I tell them what I’m curious about as a reader. What questions I have and what the piece makes me think about and feel.

That was such a great perspective on conferring. Responding as a reader, powerful idea that seems so basic now that it has been shared.

Cathy Mere has been on a writing roll lately and it’s been wonderful. This piece, What Do We Do When Our Truths Aren’t the Same?, helped me think about different perspectives and how often people are talking about the same thing without understanding each other.

As educators, we often sit beside people who have a different truth than we have.  Whether working with our teams, sitting with parents, or listening to specialists we can find our truths do not match.  Whether teaching, coaching, or leading, we run up against those who have a different way of seeing situations.  So often in these situations it seems we choose a fight or flight strategy.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Ignorance from Tim Stahmer is an important read right now. We are all ignorant about many things without it being a problem. And yet…

The problem comes when we form an opinion on a particular topic while still largely ignorant about that topic.

Another piece from Cathy Mere, Just Hit Your Mark, is wonderful. Scaffolding, especially over-scaffolding, is something I think about fairly frequently.

 know I want to be intentional in teaching next steps for readers, but I also know I have to monitor myself.  If I find myself giving a myriad of prompts instead of just scaffolding the next step, I know I’m teaching the book and not the reader.

‘I know I’m teaching the book and not the reader” what an important idea to hang onto.

Presuming positive intentions is also frequently on my mind, when it comes to both students and adults. However, presuming competence is something I do far better with my students than with adults. This piece from Organized Chaos was a push I needed.

We talk a lot about presuming competence in our students, but we don’t always do it with our colleagues. We assume that because a teacher doesn’t recognize a particular term or practice, or that a teacher approaches a behavior in a certain way, that the teacher isn’t as good, competent, or informed as we are. 

She often helped me to be a better, more thoughtful, kinder teacher when we worked in the same school. I’m grateful she is still doing so.

She wrote another piece about suspensions and teacher working conditions. It is definitely worth reading but I’ll admit that this point is the one that made me stop.

1) Suspension is about us, not the kids. We suspend kids when we don’t know what else to do in a specific situation. We suspend when we feel helpless.

A Reminder about Teaching Students Math in NYC (and Beyond), from Jose Vilson is a good reminder about our roles as teachers and how we serve our students.

If students already knew everything when they walked in, we wouldn’t have jobs. Also, the conversation is never about what they do know. None of our kids come with nothing into the classroom. Aside from their full humanities, stories, families, and genetics, they come with knowledges we should try to tap into whenever we get the opportunity. How do math teachers – or any teacher – expect students to open themselves to new horizons when we’ve already shut down the curiosity they brought with them?

Finally, KQED’s Mind/Shift blog covers a wide range of educational topics. This piece spoke to me because I know how difficult it is, at least for me, to be sure I am offering inclusive experiences and spaces for students different from me. Knowing and understanding others’ lived experiences is a challenge that requires serious work on my part.

Studies have shown LGBTQ students are more likely to be bullied at school, which can lead to missed classes and a higher risk of suicide. For those kids, a teacher who knows how to be inclusive — or how to “queer” the classroom, as some refer to it — can make a big difference. But many teachers aren’t sure how to do that. Over the years, gender and sexual identity have evolved, and not everyone has kept up.

Wow. This is an astounding collection of pieces. The online world of educators never ceases to amaze me.

Approximation & Mastery

Last week we worked as a team to set a SMARTR goal (yes, in my district we’ve added another R to the end – overachievers, that’s what we are) in literacy. We discussed how to make this goal meaningful for us and something that would be genuinely useful for us as teachers and for our students rather than a hoop we have to jump through. I think we had some really great discussion and landed on a goal that will push us in positive ways. We’ll see…

Our discussion and the things we struggled around together have been in the back of my mind since then. On Saturday, this tweet popped up as the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project held one of their big PD days. (Someday I’m going to attend one of these. Someday.)

While the second half of the tweet resonated with me because I often think I need as much time for planning and assessing as I have for teaching, it was the first half that really struck me in that moment.

“Minilessons are meant for approximation not mastery.”

I think this gets at the struggle we were having as a team last week. We are, of course, aiming for mastery. I don’t think our administration would accept a SMARTR goal that didn’t. As a result, I think we see ourselves as needing to teach for mastery. Big picture, we do need to do so. Lesson by lesson, day by day, conference by conference, group by group, we don’t. We need to teach for approximation. That’s the only way we move to mastery.

But we hold ourselves accountable for mastery and it makes the day to day exhausting. We have to find a balance between accepting approximation and aiming for mastery.

Reason I’m Awesome, #4

This blog experiment may be nearing an end. I may be running out of ‘reasons I’m awesome’ already. I don’t think this will be quite the therapeutic process I’d planned if I can count my reasons for awesomeness on one hand…

I take a lot of pictures at school. I’ve done this for years, long before it was as easy as carrying around your phone. My first year teaching, 1998-1999, I made a photo album at the end of the year. (I got a small, point-and-shoot camera for my high school graduation and I’ve been taking pictures fairly regularly ever since.) About a decade ago I started a blog for my class. A way to share our at-school lives with families. Taking pictures gained a new purpose then.

A few years after that I began printing out some pictures, just on the printer, to hang up in our classroom. We had one of those big coat closets on wheels and the back of it was one of the first things you saw as you walked in our classroom. So I covered it with pictures throughout the year. When I took them down I gave them to kiddos to keep.

When it became fairly cheap to print actual photographs, rather than just pictures on paper, I began doing that. The photos are fun and welcoming decorations as well as great reminders of our learning and our community.

Last year another teacher passed these small frames on to me. You can write on them with dry erase markers, which I am hoping we’ll do later this week. We’ll see…

The 8X10 frames I got super cheap with the plan to display photos in them. Today was the first day all six had photos. In the first week of school I had pictures of families at our open house in the little frames along the top and in three of the 8X10s. The other little frames had photos from the first day of school.

Today I took all those out and put new ones in and hung up the other three 8X10 frames. The photos I took out will go home with kiddos in their Wednesday folders this week, both the small photos and the 8X10s.

My own daughters went to the school in which I taught for many years in elementary school. It was wonderful for myriad reasons. One thing I miss is that I always knew what was going on. Not every detail of their days by any means, but a good sense of what their daily lives at school were like. My oldest is a sophomore now and I have no clue what her days are truly like now.

I know most parents feel the way I do at this point. So I hope the pictures I take and post on our website and send home for them to keep give them a small window into their children’s lives at school.

Reasons I’m Awesome, #3

(I’m still questioning that title…see my disclaimer.)

I have spent my entire career teaching students who do not look like me and whose lives have been quite different from mine. It has been a gift as I have learned so much from them and their families. There is no question in my mind that my teaching experience has greatly shaped who I am as a teacher. I am confident I am a better teacher now than I would be if I had spent my career teaching students like my own daughters (who I do love and adore).

One way I believe this is true is around the literature I choose for our classroom. I want to believe that I would feel equally as strongly about diversity in books if I taught in a school full of white, middle-class kids, but I’m not certain of it. The teacher I am now knows the importance of this in every classroom and for every student. The teacher I might have been could have missed that.

We’re on our third read aloud of the year. We began with Juana and Lucas. I read it to my students last year as our first book and they talked about it all year. (Partly, I’m sure, because Juana Medina, the author and illustrator, always responded to our tweets.) So it was an obvious choice to kick off this year. It’s definitely something of a mirror book for my kiddos (thank you Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop for that understanding.) The main character speaks Spanish and learns English. She is about the same age as my students. She lives with her mom and spends a lot of time with her grandparents. The book is a fun read while also giving us lots to think about and discuss.

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Our second read aloud was Rad Girls Can by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl. Last year, much later in the year, I read their book, Rad Women Worldwide. I loved that book for the global nature, offering my students the opportunity to learn about women similar to them and different from them. Rad Girls Can is new but excited me because all of the people in it did something inspiring before they were twenty. That seemed like a mirror for my students in an unusual way. At least unusual when it comes to nonfiction. Fiction offers them plenty of inspiring kids. Nonfiction is a bit more challenging. I am trying to balance fiction and nonfiction better in my read alouds this year. It’s always a goal…

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Our current read is Princeless: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin. It’s a comic book (or, I think, a few issues of a comic book put into a book). The main character is a princess who has been placed in a tower by her parents. As have her older sisters. She is guarded by a dragon. She decides to rescue herself and her sisters with her dragon’s help. The book explores, not surprisingly, issues of sexism (in fact we’ll start the chapter titled, Sexism in the Armor Industry today so we had a brief discussion of the meaning of that word yesterday) but also issues of race as Princess Adrienne is a woman of color, something she discusses with a knight who comes to rescue her. He calls out, “Fair princess” and she lets him have it with an impassioned explanation of the word ‘fair’ in this instance. It’s hilarious but it is also thought-provoking.

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I don’t know what our next read aloud will be but it will be chosen carefully.

What I’ve come to realize, more slowly than would have been expected, is that I while I choose books to be sure my students have mirrors, I am also choosing books to help them become critical readers and participants in society. I am trying to choose books that will help my students question the world they live in. I want them to consume media with a critical eye. The books I choose and the conversations we have will, I hope, encourage that.