Normal is Relative

One morning this week I walked into our classroom and was struck by a bit of cognitive dissonance. I walked in thinking about how comfortable and normal our classroom felt to me. Then I thought about how much our classroom isn’t normal at all. A brief reminder that whatever your normal is seems completely normal without some external reminder or push to suggest it’s not.

At first glance, it looks like most elementary school classrooms.

A nice bright rug, easel, places for books, even a SmartBoard. Pretty standard fare.

A little closer though and I take stock of the things that make people pause when they enter our room.

The black thing behind this table is a piano. In kindergarten and first grade we used it to sing and dance a lot. In third grade last year we hardly used it. This year I’m hoping to use it to sing (school appropriate) pop songs my kiddos know. I’m especially looking for ones that are powerful and send a message of empowerment. Planning to kick off next week with some songs from Moana.

The couch is often a topic of discussion when people visit our room for the first time. My mom bought it years ago, decided after a while that it really wasn’t what she wanted, and passed it on to some young colleagues of mine who were in need of furniture. When they all moved on and no longer needed it, it came back to me and I decided I wanted it in our classroom. I’ve had it for ten years now and I can’t imagine not having a couch.

In the left-hand corner here there is a floor lamp. It’s one of four, one in each corner, in our classroom. There are also two strands of rope lights (like holiday lights but brighter and tougher) above the whiteboard and a bulletin board. We don’t ever turn on our overhead lights. They are too bright and too harsh. Between a wall of windows and these lights we’re all set and in a much warmer setting.

We’ve got flexible seating in our room. Tables with typical school chairs, the white table above with folding chairs, a table with stools, a couple of tables for sitting on the floor, and a table for standing. Plus, bean bags and little spinny chairs. Lots of choices and no need to stay in one place if it isn’t working for a child.

That’s all been true in or room for a while, which is why it seems so normal to me. This year I added one piece of furniture.

Now kids have the option to take their shoes off in our classroom.

My hope is that our classroom is a place in which everyone is comfortable because without that it’s awfully tough to focus and even tougher to take risks. I’m sure there are ways our space doesn’t work for everyone (it doesn’t work for me when the kids leave it a mess!) but that’s always my goal. No matter how odd it makes our classroom seem.

Hearts and Love

On the first day of school we read this book. The photographs throughout are all of hearts found or created in surprising places. It’s beautiful. It’s also all about spreading love. Reading it didn’t take long but it’s a fun one to go back to again and again.

At least three weeks later, as my students were eating fruit for snack (our school is part of a program that provides fresh fruits and vegetables several days a week) this happened:

One girl noticed that she had taken a bite of her fruit and left a heart. She shared it with a friend who suggested she show it to me because it was like the book. Of course, then everyone wanted to make a heart in their fruit!

The original girl was so sweetly appreciative of her friend’s suggestion and her friend’s excitement. At the end of each day I’m pretty exhausted. I’m sure I’m not always as patient or kind as I should be to these eight year olds. I’m grateful to them for reminding me to spread the love.

Third Graders and Conversations about Racism and Sexism

This was our morning message yesterday:

At the end of our morning meeting each day we read our message together. After reading it today I asked my third graders what they noticed about who signed the Constitution. Their first thoughts were to begin guessing who might have signed it. “Thomas Jefferson!” “George Washington!” I said we’d have to do some research on that, but redirected them to the message and asked what they noticed there about who signed it.

One girl said, “Men.” I asked them if I would have been able to sign it if I had lived then. They said no because I am a woman. I then told them that the thirty-nine men who had signed it all looked a lot like me, with very pale skin. Not one of them had dark skin.

My students, on the other hand, all do. Of my nineteen third graders, sixteen are Latinx, two are Vietnamese, and one is Black.

We talked briefly about how our government now does have women and people of color. (Not enough by any stretch, but we didn’t get to that. Not yet.)

I asked them how long ago this was that only white men could be a part of our government. One of my students figured it out pretty quickly, with some pretty awesome math.

I hope that my students feel the possibilities in knowing something of what our country was 230 years ago and what it is now. We have so far to go still, but knowing progress has been made should give some hope.

This was a brief conversation but I think it was an important one. My students are eight years old. They should not be taking on the entire world and I have to walk a fine line. I want them to understand the challenges in their lives due to the structural racism and sexism we face but I also want them to believe in their abilities to be and do many things. Especially to be a part of continuing to improve our society for all of us.

In a Rut

As I may have mentioned at some point this is my 20th year in the classroom. I’m starting to wonder if it will be my last. I’ve hit slumps in the past, times when I knew what I believed in doing but wasn’t actually doing it. I changed grade levels or began teaching our gifted class to mix things up and get me rolling again. Not only did I get rolling again but I grew a lot as I looped with a class (twice), taught our gifted class, and moved from the upper grades down to first grade and then kindergarten. It’s been amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And (mostly) I believe my students have benefited from being in my class.

This year I adore my class. I knew half of them from kindergarten, either because I taught them or because I worked with them in some other way. The work we’ve done as a school around academic talk is showing amazing benefits. I’m working with a special education teacher this year (who is awesome) who takes five of my kiddos for a good portion of the day. I’ve always worked with a push-in model so this is new for me. Teaching only fourteen kids for much of the day is fantastic and adjusting to when I have all nineteen and have to address needs very differently is an interesting challenge. I have no complaints. I mean look at them. They’re awesome.

 

And yet.

For all the things that I am doing well as a teacher there are so many that I’m doing badly. I’m not suggesting I’m a bad teacher. Simply that there are too many things, and things that matter a lot to me, that I think are not good at all.

I can’t figure out what’s got me in this rut when it comes to some aspects of teaching this year. That’s part of the problem. If I could figure out why it’s happening, I’d be far more likely to be able to figure out how to fix it. Instead, I go in every day with the best of intentions and, somewhere during the day, slip right back into behaviors that I hate.

I’m not looking for reassurance that I’m a good teacher. Whether I believe that or not, there’s plenty of reassurance for me. What I need is to figure out why I’m stuck like this or how on earth to turn things around. I believe students deserve better than what mine are getting from me right now.

Going Shoeless

We started on a bit of an experiment today. When we’re in our classroom, students can go shoeless if they so desire. In the past we used the shelving unit above for shoes at home but we bought something classier (not a high bar) so this was available for school. A quick trip to the dollar store netted pairs of socks for my students (as I’m willing to try shoeless but not barefoot).

During the summer someone shared an article with me about students going shoeless and the positive impact on achievement. I was skeptical, but started reading. After following some links and getting a better sense of the study I moved on to other things. But the idea of shoelessness stayed in the back of my mind.

The more I thought about it, the more I figured, why not. It’s a pretty low bar to entry for it. There’s not a lot of effort necessary to give it a try. I decided to wait until we’d had a couple of weeks of school and gotten a handle on being together before adding this. So today was our first day. I wouldn’t say I saw increased achievement today (shockingly enough) but the kids did love it. Every one of them took their shoes off every chance they got. (I will say, my one kiddo who is regularly removing his shoes and replacing them on his feet did not have that distraction so that’s a win.)

I don’t really expect this to suddenly increase achievement for my students. I’m far from convinced it’s that simple. However, if students are more comfortable without their shoes, then why not. I know I’m more likely to be focused and productive when I’m feeling comfortable. So we’ll keep going shoeless if we want and see how it works for us.

A couple of friends pointed out that fire drills will be a challenge. I’m still mulling over exactly how to plan for that one.

Campus Sexual Assault Policies

Yesterday Betsy DeVos spoke about campus sexual assault. My greatest concern about the Department of Education after the election was that the Office of Civil Rights would be abolished or made toothless. I was afraid that our most vulnerable students would be in more danger. Today’s speech does not make me feel any better.

Here’s a piece of her speech:

This speech may or may not signal a significant change in policy, one that will harm many victims of sexual assault.

In any instance of judgement we must err on one side or the other. Our justice system is designed to err on the side of the accused as we must presume innocence until proven guilty (although that assumes a lack of bias that is awfully naive).

As I read this speech I found that the argument here is that we should be erring on the side of the accused in the cases of campus sexual assault. That’s what we’ve done for generations. It clearly isn’t working.

I will argue, loudly, forcefully, with great vehemence, that we should err on the side of the victim in these cases.

The concern that a students will lose their ‘ability to purse their education’ is weak. Students who are kicked out of school for sexual abuse (still a minority of those committing sexual abuse) have other opportunities. They may miss completing a degree at their chosen institution, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost the ‘ability to pursue their education’. Victims, however, have often lost that ability as well as the ability to engage in meaningful relationships, trust others, focus on a job, and on and on.

DeVos shared a story of a young man, the first in his family to attend college, who was kicked out just weeks from graduation for sexual misconduct. The way she tells the story, he was wronged. That’s quite possible. We will never get it 100% right. We are human and fallible. He said:

Yup. Which is why so many women and girls (and men and boys) never speak up about having been sexually abused or assaulted. Because what will be said about them is horrifying. Learning to survive after sexual assault is hard enough. Doing it while be attacked by others for speaking up is nigh on impossible. I have such immense respect for victims who do speak up.

The above quote is from a woman who was sexually assaulted at her college. She may be meaning the university system when she said this but I believe system should be society. Victims feel victimized again and again when they speak up in our country.

I’ve written about rape before, a couple of times. Sadly, given our society and the current administration, I’m sure I’ll be writing about it again.

 

 

On the plus side, a day like today makes me grateful to be in the classroom with my third graders rather than in the Department of Education reviewing that speech. I don’t believe anything I could have said would have made a difference. That would have been hell.

Grades Are For Eggs

from tkraska’s flickr

Last night my husband and I attended back to school night at the high school. Apparently we are parents of a high school student. I totally get how we got here, but I’m having trouble accepting that we’re here.

Anyway, back to school night…It’s quite a different event at high school. After two decades of doing this at elementary I’m still adjusting to life beyond that. We spent ten minutes in each of her seven classes (world history/geography, biology, geometry, English, PE/health, American Sign Language, and choir) along with ten minutes travel time between each. Plus her school is currently being renovated so there’s a lot going on and a whole village of trailers. A village we visited twice. In the rain. Feel my pain. I probably wasn’t at my best or most generous as I listened to the teachers’ spiels.

So, I’ll say she seems to have lovely teachers. They seem to know their stuff. They seem to like their students. They seem to enjoy working there. You know, based on the ten minutes I had to build that impression. Our daughter seems to like them too, which helps my feelings. I think we’re lucky that she’s had such positive experiences with teachers for so many years.

Still, I’m going to complain. Maybe it’s a difference between elementary school and high school…Maybe it’s a difference between the Title I schools in which I’ve always taught and her more affluent school (basically my school’s free/reduced meal and non-free/reduced meal percentages are the exact opposite of her school). I don’t know for sure. But when these teachers shared their policies about grading it seemed to me they were feeling progressive. And I’m not buying it.

Many of these teachers shared that if students don’t do well on tests, they can retake. If they retake they can get up to 80%. Because they want to be fair.

Wait. What?

Is grading about being fair? Or is grading about reflecting and communicating the learning a student has done or is doing?

It seems to me that if we’re concerned about grading being fair that is because we see grades as a competition. If there’s no competition, then it doesn’t matter how many students score at the top or when they manage to get to that point.

What if our grading policies reflected our beliefs about learning? Would your policies change? Would you students earn different grades? Would their thinking about grades and learning shift?

I should no longer be surprised when I choose an image from flickr and it was taken by a friend. Thank you, Dean Shareski!

I firmly believe that grades, like much of education, are done the way they are done because it’s what’s always been done. Changing things in education is tough but grading may be the toughest. Parents feel strongly about grading. Colleges look for grades and class rank. We give out awards for good grades. So much is built in to the system. But that doesn’t mean we’re doing it right.

If I had it my way, grades would be gone. We’d give feedback, but not label with a grade. We’d show students their strengths and help them with the things that still need work. We would work with students so that they get good at assessing themselves, their learning, and their progress.

Given how unlikely it is that we’ll get to my utopia anytime soon, at the very least we would use grades as a way to communicate rather than a way to compete. We would definitely stop making school a competition.

Facing Fear Together

Back on November 10th I wrote about teaching in the wake of the presidential election. It was a difficult day that had been preceded by difficult days and was followed by more difficult days. The one positive that stands out to me in retrospect is that we were a strong community in our classroom and school by that time.

Last year’s students the week of the election.

Right now, we’ve all been together for five days. We’re still figuring each other out. What do we all like and dislike? What frustrates us? What makes us smile? Can we trust each other?

I’m worried about going back to school tomorrow, back to my new group of third graders (although I knew and worked with about half of them in kindergarten so we have more basis for trust than normal at this point).

I do not know if my students (the ones born outside of this country) and their parents have papers. I’m sure some do and some don’t. My feelings about them are not impacted by that information. But their emotions, especially right now, probably are. With the expectation that Trump will announce tomorrow that he is ending DACA, he is making an unequivocal statement that our government is currently attacking immigrants.

In an ideal world my third graders would have the opportunity to be children. They would be able to play and read and learn without fear. For some of them, that may be their reality. Either because they and their families aren’t impacted by the current policies around immigration issues or because their families have worked hard to keep them from the stress and fear. For many of my kiddos, however, this won’t be true. Even if their families are working to shield them from the anxiety they are feeling, children are perceptive. They hear more than we realize. They feel the tension. They may not fully understand what is going on but they are likely to feel the fear.

I will head to school tomorrow more strongly hanging on to the idea that my students must see our school and our classroom as places of safety and love. I will be open to hearing their fears and worries, whether spoken or not. I will be there to reassure them that they are safe, at least at school. I will be there to remind them that people love and care for them and for their families and will fight for them. I cannot promise them everything will work out fine. And I won’t try. But I will go in fiercely loving them all.

I will also, if this announcement is made, be ready to start making phone calls. My senators will both hear from me as will my representative. As all three are Democrats my goals will be to push them to speak frequently and loudly in support of immigrants as well as to push and support any legislation possible. It’s not much. It feels weak. But if we all speak up together we can make a difference for these families.

Author Connection

On the first day of school last week we started reading Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina. It’s a chapter book, but full of illustrations, and seemed like a wonderful first ongoing read aloud for my third graders. Each day we’ve read one chapter after coming in for recess. Each day my kiddos have groaned loudly at the end of the chapter. (That sound is beautiful to a teacher.)

On Thursday I realized I could harness that feeling. As I closed the book I told my students that Juana Medina is on twitter and we could send her a tweet. (I held off on telling them that I’ve met her and showing the photographic proof from the Gaithersburg Book Festival last year. I’ll keep that in reserve until I really need it.) I grabbed my computer, connected to the projector, and we composed a tweet together.

I told them we would check back at the end of the day, a couple of hours later, to see if Juana Medina responded.

Luckily, she did.

My students were practically out of their skin to see that she had responded. Then I told them she had another tweet to us.

Because the tweets were up on the projector, my students were reading them out loud in unison. After reading the first part of the second sentence, they all paused, gasped, and then continued reading together. It was beautiful.

Then they asked if we could write back. I asked what they wanted to say. They knew immediately and I got to typing.

This cost me nothing but time. And it was worth any time it took.

(Also, I love that my students responded to Juana Medina in the style of Juana and Lucas, in both English and Spanish. Beautiful. Especially as 16 of my 19 students are Latinx, most of them first or second generation immigrants from Central America. They can connect.)

First Impressions

Three days in to this year and I’m completely exhausted. This doesn’t surprise me, not really anyway. And yet it does seem to be a bit surprising every year.

One of the reasons it’s exhausting (beyond the really obvious ones) is that everything I do right now, every word, every movement, every gesture, all the tones of my voice, everything, is telling my students who I am. They are, not consciously but still, taking it all in and synthesizing it into an impression of me that will impact the rest of our year together. They’re determining how I feel about them. They’re deciding what they expect for this year. The six hours I spend with them every day is heavy, weighted by this knowledge. I want to be sure that I’m sending them what I believe and want for them. I want my words, movements, tone, gestures, to tell them I care for them and believe in them. They’re going to be stuck with me for a huge amount of time and I want them to feel safe and secure with me.

A piece of our math work from today.

At the same time, I’m trying not to allow myself to do exactly what I know my students are doing. I’m five times their age, I need to be more thoughtful about the impressions I make of them. I don’t want to assume I know them immediately. They are far more complicated than their words, gestures, movements, and tone will tell me. They may also have some anxiety about the new year which will impact the way they interact with me. I want to be sure I’m seeing the whole child and not leaping to conclusions. Their year shouldn’t be set in the first days.

First impressions are powerful. Life experience has definitely taught me this but my students don’t yet have that experience. This means I feel pressure to make a good first impression while not accepting the first impressions I have of them.