More Chat Joy

Apparently the only thing I can write about these days is our classroom chat. We’ll be back in person, in a hybrid setting, in just over a week so maybe that will change. Ironically, I will be back in the building next week, my last day in the building without students, will be next Friday, March 12th. March 12th of 2020 was the last day we were in school with students. So basically it will be as close to an exact year from the time we went virtual to the point I’m back in person with kids. I’m nervous and excited. All the emotions.

Back to the chat…

I haven’t been as consistent with our read aloud books this year as I usually am. However, today we finished Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog. We’re in the midst of a poetry unit in language arts and I try to do some connecting of our read aloud books and our current unit of study. So Love That Dog was on the list. (I have other povels – as my 5th graders called novels written through poetry many years ago – that I love, but this one is the one I know best and I stuck with it this year and it was perfect.) Two days ago we got to the point in the book at which Jack, the narrator, shares what happened to his dog, Sky. It was traumatic.

Today, we finished the book. More trauma.

One student returned from lunch a few minutes late and missed some of what we read so that kiddo was quite devastated. Everyone, that kiddo included, was so sad that the book was finished. To me, that’s a win, that they loved the book so much that they’re pained that it’s over. I promised them that both Love That Dog and Hate That Cat, the sequel, will both be available when we’re back in the building together in just over a week. I am making a large pile of books I know kids will want in their hands that week.

Poetry Love

Last week I shared this poem with my 3rd graders.

My students are 8 and 9 years old. This poem felt like a bit of a stretch. I read it to them twice (as I do with all poems) and then sat in silence for 30 seconds to a minute. (Wait time in the virtual setting is hard for me. It’s hard in person, but it’s harder here. I’m working on it.)

During the silence, the chat has some thoughts going.


After some silence, I decided my students weren’t really sure how to put their thoughts into words so I shared that when my own kids (now 17 and 14) were very young, people often remarked on their cuteness. My husband and I found ourselves telling these infants and toddlers that they were smart and kind and funny and so many other things. I told my students that we wanted our young children to hear more than just about their cuteness.

That set the chat going.

Hearing my students’ thoughts about the women in their lives, mostly their mothers, was amazing. It was uplifting and inspiring to read their thoughts.

The chat continues to be a true gift in our classroom.

Yay Books

On Friday I taught from my classroom in the school building because I had scheduled a meeting with our tech person to be sure I have everything set up the way I need it for when we return in person in a hybrid setting in a couple of weeks. I was dreading it, to be honest. Since last March I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been in the building. Being in the building to prep the physical space or support my team has been fine but being there needing to work in the physical space and teach virtually was not something I was excited about doing.

As it turns out, I was glad to be there almost immediately. For one thing, I have a student teacher right now and Friday was the first chance we had to meet in person. That was an absolute delight. One of my teammates was also in the building and chatting with him, face to face rather than virtually, was also fantastic.

Before we started our morning meeting, I took a moment to walk around the classroom a bit with my laptop to show our students the space. They’ll be back on March 16th and I know there are a range of emotions about this transition. I hoped that seeing the room would ease some of the anxiety and feed some of the excitement. Even if the room looks nothing like I would like it to.

The majority of my classroom library books are still stuffed away in the cabinets. I opened the cabinet doors to show my third graders, while telling them that the books will be organized and much more accessible by the time they return.

The chat blew up and made my day.

That last line totally got me. That kid knows me.

One of my greatest fears about being virtual this year was how I would encourage and build a love of reading and writing with my students. This makes me think we’re doing okay.

Love the practicality of the one asking if there’s a bookshelf! We’ve got plenty. Just trying to figure out how to make the books as accessible as possible within COVID guidelines.

Virtual teaching has been far better than I anticipated it would be. There are even aspects of it that I love. On March 16th, though, when I put books into kids hands, in person, I will feel like I am back where I belong.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Higher Ed Edition

By having married into the academic world (my husband is a college professor) I have had opportunities many elementary school teachers don’t have. I think most elementary school teachers get to learn from their colleagues and friends and I have definitely gotten to do so over the years. I’ve also gotten to learn from my husband’s colleagues and friends.

My first year of full time teaching happened while my husband was completing his PhD and adjunct teaching. We were both surprised at how often one of us would say, “My students are doing…” or “My students need more support with…” and the other would reply, “Mine too.” We hadn’t expected to find so many connections between fourth graders and undergrads. That probably helped prepare me for the learning I could do from his colleagues in the history department as well as friends in political science, sociology, chemistry, geography, and more. I know very little about most of those subjects but I do believe that strong teaching strategies are useful no matter who or where you teach. Obviously I am not going to walk into my 3rd grade classroom and behave exactly as my husband would do in his college classroom, but there is much we do that aligns.

Information and Technology Convergence Center

This building will forever be associated with the folks below in my mind (whether that makes sense or not is of little relevance to me).

When I reflect on what I have learned and am still learning from the world of higher education (even more crucial for me as I am adjunct teaching currently) there are three folks who come to mind at once. Three people who I rarely get to see in person (even pre-pandemic) but still use what they’ve taught me and I still turn to them and read what they share.

The first one brings me so much joy not only for all she’s taught me in recent years but because I actually knew her when we were both in high school (she was friends with my sister) and meeting her again as an adult was such a treat. Martha Burtis is one of the most thoughtful, reflective, brilliant people I’ve been lucky enough to know. Part of my feelings, I’m sure, are related to how many interests we share. We are both parenting kids of similar ages. We both love the theater. We share a fascination with and some hesitancy about technology. Not only have I learned from Martha’s blog posts and tweets, but she has always been willing to answer my questions and help me think through things when I’m stuck.

Ryan Brazell is another higher ed person who has helped me, whether he realizes it or not, as both a teacher and as a human being. Ryan’s compassion for others and ability to see from multiple perspectives has helped me step outside of my lived experiences a bit more and begin to recognize the immense width and breadth of lives that I have not known. I have immense respect for people who live their lives genuinely and without artifice. I think that’s a huge challenge in our world and Ryan is a wonderful model for me in doing this. Ryan is another whose tweets continue to educate me as he shares ideas, information, and writing from many people I would not otherwise see. It is an absolute gift for me to have such a wealth of perspectives and thinking coming my way.

Finally, Jesse Stommel continually reminds me to keep the focus on my students and on their learning. His tweets and his writing are all centered on students as people and learners. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but somehow it still is. We’ve been trained to see students as scores and grades and compliant beings rather than as full people, worthy of respect and care and trust in their own rights. Jesse helps me keep that at the center of what I do.

Martha, Ryan, and Jesse all serve (as all the people I’ve written Virtual Appreciation Notes to do) as small voices in my head or little angels on my shoulder pushing me in the right direction when I need that reminder. This may come in ways they don’t recognize at all as a tweet or blog post or article will cross my path at just the right moment. Or it may come, as it has time and time again, deliberately from them as they reach out, publicly or privately, to encourage or nudge or shove me as needed.

Dancing Rats

I shared this on twitter, but I wanted to know I could find it again when I need the joy.

My 3rd graders have voiced their preferences for certain timers that we use regularly so I’ve been looking for ones I think they’ll like. The ten minute timer with dancing rats has definitely been a hit. I used it yesterday during our break in the afternoon and this conversation happened in the chat.

You can see the rats here, just to give you a sense for what my 3rd graders were seeing as they chatted.

I appreciate the support from the one kiddo that I’m better than a rat teacher. That was a close one.

The all caps get me every time.

The chat has become a favorite part of our day for me.

Poetry Lifting Us

The group of third graders I am privileged to work with this year are an amazing group of kiddos. They are thoughtful, mature, generous, and strong. For a year that is challenging in so many ways, I am exceptionally grateful to be spending it with these people as they make it easier and better on a daily basis.

As we’ve been wrapping up a nonfiction unit and getting ready for our poetry unit, I’ve shared a poem a day with them for the past two weeks. I made a conscious decision to choose poems that aren’t typical for young children. I didn’t go with Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky.

This was yesterday’s poem.

I’ve never used this poem with elementary students before and it was the first one in two weeks that I can say that about. So I wasn’t sure how it would go. The routine is that I read the poem aloud to them twice. As I did, there was a lot going on in the chat.

As I continue to plan the poetry lessons for the next few weeks, I’m searching for more poems that will stretch my students as readers, writers, thinkers, and people. They’re clearly ready for it.

Adoring These Kids

We’ve been virtual all year and are scheduled to continue to be for another month still. I have so many thoughts and reflections about school completely online and they are mostly jumbled and unclear. I had lots of concerns at the beginning of this year about really getting to know my students and building a strong community.

I am confident I don’t know my students as I have done in past years. I am equally confident our community isn’t what it could have been. However. It is so much better than I feared.

A big part of that is using the chat. (And yeah, I’m beating myself up for waiting too long while also celebrating all it is bringing us every day.) Today the chat showed me our community in such amazing ways.

I teach 3rd graders. They are 8 or 9 years old. When their classmates get goofy in the chat, they tell them to stop. They’re generally quite respectful, but they are also strong and make it clear that using the chat in those ways is distracting them and is not okay. Equally impressive, at least to me, is that the students who were being goofy respond respectfully and stop. (They don’t stop for good, because they don’t really notice what they’re doing until it is pointed out to them, but they do stop in that moment.) Self-advocacy and care for each other. I couldn’t ask for too much more.

In one reading group today we read a nonfiction book about spies. It was interesting to me, as all of my students are in military families, to find that so many of them thought spies were fictional. They were astounded to learn about real spies and the tools they use. In a discussion about the tools, my students had many thoughts on how complicated they all seemed. One girl (who I adore, hard core) typed in the chat, “Spies are too extra to do anything simple.” Thank goodness I had my mic off and could totally crack up.

Then a student asked me what my spy name would be. Students chimed in with suggestions. Thank goodness they aren’t in charge of this because the suggestions included Agent Orr and Agent Teacher. But it set the ball rolling and they began sharing spy names they liked. Even when we returned to the main room, the conversation about spy names continued. (We returned just as we took a 10 minute break so they just kept sharing.) When we took a GoNoodle break a little later, students started asking one student for spy names. “What would be my spy name?” showed up in the chat again and again. She was great. She’d respond with things like, “I see you as the good cop type, I think your name would be Agent Positive.”

The student giving out names is new to our school this year. She’s never met these classmates in person. But she knows them. The names she offered were spot on and her classmates loved them.

When we’re back in person in a month, I hope I love these kids as much as I do right now.

Trying to See More Clearly

Yesterday afternoon I dropped a clear plastic lid for a bottle of water onto the tile floor of our bathroom. I scanned around and couldn’t find it. I crouched down to look more closely. Still nothing. I had heard it hit the floor so I knew it had to be somewhere down there. As I continued searching, I thought, “When I find it, it’s going to seem so obvious that I won’t be able to unsee it or imagine how I missed it.”

Upon that thought, I paused in my search and glanced at the bathroom counter where Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was sitting.

I realized reading this book (and so many others that teach a fuller, more complete story of American history than most of us learned in school) is similar. Once I have learned the details of history that have led us to where we are today, I can not unsee them. I can not imagine how I didn’t know it all before.

Reading about the way laws were created and social orders maintained in the early years of white settlement in this country makes it clear how hard those in power worked to solidify that power and ensure that people they viewed as subordinate remained that way. Reading about lynchings and white militia groups that used violence, torture and threats to hold on to power and realizing how very recent this is in our country’s history is proving to me how wide and deep are the gaps in my knowledge.

The more I read and listen to learn about events and people in our history that I was never taught in school, the more I can see how deeply entrenched our racial hierarchy is and how much work is needed to move toward a just and equitable society.

So Much Sunshine

Today I managed a couple of reading conferences. These happened on an almost daily basis in my physical classroom and have happened almost no times at all in the virtual setting. This morning I was reminded of why I did them so much in the classroom.

One student I really wanted to meet with because I wanted to discuss a book I’d given her. We have been virtual all year and having books at hand is something that is crucial to me so I’ve done porch drop offs at the start of each quarter. Every bag has had 4-6 books, not a lot for 9 weeks of reading, but better than nothing. Over the summer I reached out to some local libraries. Volunteers at two of them met with me, masked and distanced, and allowed me to go through their donations to buy books, since they wouldn’t be hosting book sales any time soon. I filled my trunk with as wide a range of books as I possibly could.

The book in question today, however, was something different. Not too long ago I read Renee Watson’s Ways to Make Sunshine. I absolutely loved it and spent the entire book thinking how much the main character reminded me of one of my current students. So I did something I don’t do too often and I ordered a copy to give her. (Usually I order copies for our classroom library so the kid can read it and then others can too. But our classroom library is still all stored away right now so that isn’t helpful.)

Image result for ways to make sunshine

In their porch drop off bags I included a note to each student with why I picked those books for them. So this kiddo knew this book was a special one. When we chatted today, she told me she’s about 40 pages in. I asked her if she knew why the main character reminded me of her? She said, in a questioning voice, “Because she looks like me?”

I said sure, although I don’t think she looks that much like the pictures of this character. (But I’m going to love sharing Marley Dias’s #1000BlackGirlBooks story with her – and the whole class – next week.) I said, “Have you gotten to see how much she loves to cook?” There was a quick gasp and an, “Oh! Right! Wow.” I said, “And you have an older brother, right?” She started talking about her older brother and the ways he is like the brother in the book. I said, “And she’s always finding the positive in things, just like you.”

We talked some more about this book. My student had lots of thoughts about the frustrations the main character faced in moving to a small house and having an annoying older brother. It was a fun conversation. (It’s always extra fun when I’ve read the book!)

Near the end, my student said, “I really want to read Some Places More Than Others. This sounded familiar to me but I wasn’t making a connection. So she said, “It’s by the same author, Renee Watson. She said, “The girl travels and I want to read about that.”

A used copy has been ordered and will be on its way to this student as soon as possible. I am so glad she now knows Renee Watson’s books and loves them.

The virtual setting is helping me see what I usually do to help my students love reading and books. I’m still trying to figure out how to do some of that in this setting. Slowly getting there.

Getting Over Myself

I have been teaching virtually since September. I am online synchronously with 3rd graders for four hours four days every week. That’s a lot of time.

I am a strong believer in students having control over their learning, their spaces, themselves. (I fail regularly at not holding tight to control over things with students but it is a constant goal to let go of it.)

I state those two things to make it clear how badly I needed to get over myself.

All year, I strongly restricted the chat in our virtual classroom. We used it some but most of the time I had it turned off. I didn’t want to deal with it. I recognized that I needed to give my students some time to play with it, have fun with it, explore it, before they’d be ready to use it well on a regular basis. And I was unwilling to exert the time or energy to do that. I justified it with lots of different reasons. We were working hard on how to use another tool right then. It was about to be Thanksgiving break so we shouldn’t start it right before that. It was about to be winter break so we shouldn’t start it then. I finally opened up the chat after the winter break.

Of course, this will surprise no one, I wish I’d done it sooner. The opportunities, learning, community building, questioning, advocating opportunities, that we missed for so long will haunt me. I know better. (I’m human. I screw up. Moving on.)

Yesterday, after our independent reading time, a student shared about a book she was reading. She started with, “No one will want to read this.” As soon as she stated the title, another student grabbed her copy of that book and held it up to the camera. After the first finished her share, this conversation happened in the chat.

The first two statements are from the student who shared. The next set are from the one who held up her book. The final line is back from the first kiddo.

Then this afternoon, we read the poem, Double Trouble: Yolanda Griffith, from Hoop Queens by Charles R. Smith, Jr. After reading it and talking about it, I suggested to my students that they might want to look up Yolanda Griffith and learn more about her. So a student dropped this in the chat a moment later:

I’ve got a third grade researcher on board.

Finally, also this afternoon, we continued our current mystery from Solve This! Forensics by Kate Messner and Anne Ruppert. My one and only ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) student (after 21 years of working in schools with a significant majority ESOL students, only having one is odd), shared her thoughts about the suspects in our current mystery with this comment as I read:

There’s still plenty of ridiculousness in our chat. And two kids today arguing there. Monitoring the chat while teaching and working with kids is a challenge, but totally worth it. Which I knew.