Reflecting on the Social

Almost five years ago Glennon Doyle wrote a post that has stuck with me all this time. Lots of her writing hits me hard and changes me, but this post haunted me a bit. I couldn’t figure out how to do what I wanted with what I learned from it.

Every Friday afternoon Chase’s teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.

And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase’s teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.

I read this and thought it was unbelievably brilliant. Simple, easy to do as a teacher, and so powerful. The problem, for me, is that my classroom has flexible seating so asking kids whom they’d like to sit with would seem odd to them. So I’ve struggled with this for five years. (That sounds absurd now that I’m putting it in black and white. Sigh.)

This year I’m trying something. Finally. I’ve created a set of prompts to help my kiddos to reflect on their relationships with their classmates. The prompts are:

  • In the past two weeks I have been glad to sit beside _______________ at lunch because…
  • In the past two weeks I have had fun playing at recess with ____________ because…
  • In the past two weeks ____________ has helped me learn in class by…
  • In the past two weeks I have had trouble doing my best when I work with _____________ because…
  • In the next two weeks I hope I get to work or play with _________________ because…

I don’t know that we will do this every two weeks throughout the year. I think that would be ideal for me, but we’ll see how it goes. They did it for the first time last week and I am learning a lot about their relationships and interactions. Their ‘because’ parts are pretty slim at the moment, but that doesn’t surprise me at the start of third grade. That’ll grow.

I don’t know if these prompts will really get at what I’m trying to learn from them. If needed, I’ll revise them as the year goes on. For the moment, I’m happy that I’m finally trying to get at what Glennon wrote about five years ago:

Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down- right away- who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.

That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t want to miss these social development growths or snags any more than I would want to miss the academic ones.

Men, Shut Up

If you are a man and you are questioning Dr. Ford and her accusations against Kavanaugh, just stop. Stop. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

I don’t care how good a person you are. I don’t care if you consider yourself a feminist. I don’t care how many women will say how amazing and wonderful you are. I don’t care that you have a mother, or wife, or daughter, or sister who will vouch for you. None of that matters.

You have not lived the experience of being a woman in this society. You can not, in any way, understand the realities women face, especially when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. You are looking through a window at this, possibly a very smudged, unclear window. You are not actually there. You can’t be.

When women tell you that something is harassment or sexism, your role is to listen. To hear what they are saying. To consider it and try to place it into the context of their lived experience. Not your lived experience, as that is a very different thing.

Your job is not…

  • to argue with them that what they are saying is not harassment or sexism
  • to explain to them how it is not a big deal
  • to try and connect with them about some challenge you have faced that seems similar
  • to share how other women have had that happen and not said it was harassment or sexism

If you are questioning Dr. Ford and the accusations she is making in any way it is time to take a step back, a deep breath, and a close look in the mirror. Time to question yourself as to why you feel this way. Time to ask yourself what makes you think you know better than she what happened.


(It is also worth noting that all of the above should be said about white people questioning people of color when they say they have faced harassment or racism. We white folks can not know their lived experiences any more than men can know women’s. So we should shut up and listen and look at ourselves in the same way here. And this deserves far more than an aside at the end. I apologize for that.)

Book of Bones

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about reading books to myself, out loud, and to a group of kiddos and how different each of those experiences is. That idea was hammered home this past week when I read Book of Bones: 10 Record-Breaking Animals by Gabrielle Balkan and illustrated by Sam Brewster. I had gotten it because it seemed like a good title for us to read as we looked for books for our Mock Orbis Pictus Award fun.

When I read the book to myself it was fine. I learned some interesting facts but definitely wouldn’t have put it near the top of my mock award list.

It took a couple of days to read it aloud. There’s a lot in this book. The students loved the chance to guess what animal sets each of the ten records in the book (lightest bone, heaviest bone, fewest bones, etc.). When I would turn the page they were either shocked or cheering – mostly cheering.

There were lots of gasps as I read facts about these animals. One of the reasons it took so long to read was because there was so much they wanted to discuss and ask throughout the book.

At first glance the illustrations seem functional but in reality they are astounding. The skeletons are detailed in just the right amount. Details that draw in the reader but don’t overwhelm. The pictures of the animals have the skeletons showing, if the book is at the right angle.

After reading this book aloud I love it. The kids’ reactions and the slower, careful reading we did together allowed me to see the book more clearly. And to greatly enjoy it.

(Participating in the Mock Orbis Pictus Award with NCTE is helping me share more nonfiction with my students, an ongoing goal of mine.)

Continuing our Classroom Library Set Up

Ten days ago I wrote about the work we are doing with our classroom library. It’s moving along. Slowly, but it is moving along.

The classroom library is still covered but we have sorted all of the books we unpacked from the boxes into baskets. Currently those baskets are labeled with post-it notes as we know we might want to revise baskets as we discover new books. Once we’re fully sorted we’ll make more permanent labels (and by we, I mean the kiddos).

Many of the fiction baskets we’ve set up so far, in the largest area of our classroom library. (Although the Fly Guy basket has both fiction and nonfiction in it.)

Some of the nonfiction baskets we’ve set up now. This bookcase is at the end of the main section of our classroom library, right beside our couch.

More nonfiction baskets. This bookcase is near our class carpet gathering space. To the right are the displays of the books I’ve read aloud.

More of our fiction baskets. This bookcase stands alone near our cubbies and sink. We’ve got books everywhere!

After a few days of looking through tubs full of random books for the one specifically desired or even for one that looked appealing, the kiddos were definitely ready for a discussion of how best to organize our books. They immediately identified some baskets they thought would be useful: Piggie and Elephant, Magic School Bus, Fly Guy, Robert Munsch, and True or False books.

So far the fiction books we have out are pretty easily organized by author or series. The nonfiction was a little more challenging. Some kids sorted books by series like the fiction. So we had Smart Kids books together, I Wonder Why books together, and so on. Others decided to organize books by topic, putting insect books together and ocean animals books together. I took the books and kept them in the groups the kids had chosen.

The next day I posed two questions. The first one was specific to Fly Guy at the time, but could impact future planning. There had been some debate about whether or not the fiction and nonfiction Fly Guy books should be together. So we discussed whether or not fiction and nonfiction can be in a basket together. They decided no, that shouldn’t happen, except in the case of Fly Guy. Those they wanted together. I’ll be curious to see if this comes up again and, if so, how they feel about it then.

The next question was broader. In nonfiction, should we sort by topic or by series? We looked at the baskets we had already made with nonfiction books. We had several sorted by series: True or False books, Basher Science books, Brad Meltzer’s biographies, and the Take-Along Guides books. We also had some by topic, including magnets and outer space. After some discussion the decision was reached that, most of the time at least, we want the nonfiction books to be sorted by topic. This included some wonderful discussion about what would be most helpful to us when it comes to finding books we want to read.

We laid out our nonfiction books and sorted them. We ended up with some great baskets, I think, and had some really interesting discussions about different kinds of animals. Tomorrow I’ll pull out more books and we’ll see how this experience has helped us sort books we haven’t spent as much time enjoying…

Building Shapes and Community

For the past few years I’ve started off our math time with the Week of Inspirational Math from Jo Boaler and her YouCubed team at Stanford. We always spend more than a week on the activities because they are so fabulous and the kids are having a blast. This morning we tried the Building Shapes activity.

In small groups students take a long piece of rope that is tied to make one big loop. They use the rope to make the shapes above. The rectangle and the square are where they usually start and I make them work to prove to me that they’ve created the shape they say they’ve made.

This morning my kiddos worked on this far longer than I had anticipated. They talked and listened to each other. They gently helped each other when someone was struggling. They got frustrated and worked through it. I was impressed.

The star was the next shape the groups tackled (by their choice). One group got frustrated and decided to try one of the pyramids instead. The other two groups kept going. They had five or six kiddos so they had enough hands for all the vertices but they were still having a rough time. Then one group came up with an idea I had not seen before.

They put the rope on the floor, created their star, and then made sure everyone had a hand on it. Brilliant. As soon as one group was sitting on the ground the other group realized what was happening and did it as well. They made some nice looking stars!

In the Fog

In July I drove up in the Shenandoah Mountains and found myself in the thickest fog I have ever had to navigate. As I wound my way down the mountain the fog shifted and was thicker at times than others. Sometimes I felt as though I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. At other times it seemed like a typical view. At multiple points I found myself in clearer air thinking, “I didn’t realize how bad that fog was.” It hadn’t seem so thick and blinding until I was no longer in it. The sheer density of it wasn’t clear while I was in the midst.

Looking out at the mountain before leaving.

Is this what it means to be white? Do we think things are clear because we haven’t seen anything else? Do we live in a fog and not realize it?

I think so. And I think every time we feel it’s become clear we are wrong. We feel as though we’ve come out of the fog and we don’t realize how much fog is still there. We may have come to understand something we hadn’t understood before and so we think we understand everything.

We have a lot of fog to navigate. We need to keep pushing, learning, and questioning ourselves to clear it some. And then keep on working.

Learning from Fencing Coaches

Our youngest daughter has been taking fencing for nearly a year now. (She also takes archery. My husband claims we’re raising a 19th century gentleman. Our daughter’s explanation is that the heroes in her books, many by Tamora Pierce, fence and are archers. So…)

from West Point – The U.S. Military Academy’s flickr

As I have sat through many of her hour long classes I have noticed her coaches doing some things I think I, as a classroom teacher, can learn from:

  • water breaks – they take frequent water breaks and can get water whenever they need it. I’m surprised how many of my students start every year off asking if they can get a drink of water. If it doesn’t disrupt others, go for it. Asking is unnecessary. We should all be able to take care of our basic needs.
  • modeling – the coaches do a lot of modeling and have students model for each other
  • praising – the coaches identify what the kids are doing well and praise it, they make sure the students are aware of their strengths
  • individual work – fencing is only meaningful when done with someone else but there is plenty of individual work kids can do to improve their skills. They fence with others but they also work on skills independently
  • feedback – the coaches are giving constant feedback. This includes the praise mentioned above but also tips on how to improve and ways to tweak.
  • actually doing what fencers do – from the very beginning kids are actually fencing with others. They don’t learn isolated skills for months or years before doing what they are actually studying to do. They are doing it from the start.

I would bet that none of these coaches have any formal teaching experience. I doubt they’ve had any PD on management or assessment or such. I have learned so much from them though.

How I Read

A few years ago I asked my eye doctor for bifocals (apparently progressives are now the thing and I was behind the times). My doctor suggested I take off my glasses for reading and that would solve my problem. That’s what both of our daughters do. I pushed back because, as a teacher, I need to be able to read a book and look out across my class, back and forth, back and forth. There isn’t time to be removing and replacing glasses for that. So I now have progressives. And they are fabulous (mostly).

I’ve read a few books to my class in the first couple of weeks of school. A few being about two per day, on average. And I’ve gotten to thinking about how the way I read the book impacts my understanding and enjoyment of it.

When I read a book to myself I tend to skim, at least a little. If it’s a picture book I don’t pay close attention to the pictures. I enjoy the phrasing, the language choices, the illustrations, but I don’t soak them in as I read.

When I read a book out loud I am far more aware of the writing. I catch alliteration I missed when I read to myself. I notice phrases that compliment each other. I see turns of phrase that make me smile. I appreciate the work the author did in putting those words together in just that way.

When I read a book aloud to a group their enjoyment of it increases mine. I hear their gasps and chuckles. They mutter about things they see in the illustrations – things I had completely missed. They call out predictions and questions. (And thanks to my progressives I can see the looks on their faces and the gems in the illustrations they point out.)

Thinking about this has helped me understand why reading books to my class is one of my favorite parts of my job. I have books I hoard and hide away because I don’t want anyone to discover them until I can read them aloud. I have many titles I won’t let a substitute or colleague read to my kids. The joy of reading a book aloud to a group of children is such a gift.

This arrived in the mail today. I sat down and read it slowly, taking in the language and exploring the illustrations. It was worth every minute. Still, even after that, I’m sure it will be an even better book when I read it to my class.

Exhausted, Of Course

After school yesterday I ran into a friend down the hall. She and I had chatted early in the morning, long before the kiddos arrived. By the time we saw each other at the end of the day we had prepared before school, taught, spent our break time in collaborative team meetings, and eaten lunch in the cafeteria with our students. It makes for a pretty non-stop day. She looked at me and said, “It feels like it’s been a week since I saw you this morning.”

It did.

These first few weeks of school wear me out. By the time I get home (and I don’t stay too late!) I am useless. When I realized yesterday that we had leftover pizza in the fridge it was like a gift from the universe. I didn’t have to figure out or make anything for dinner!

Not me but it could be. From Marc Parrish’s flickr.

In some ways it seems absurd to me that I’m so wiped these first few weeks. There’s a lot I’m not doing yet that will be time-consuming later. But as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized two things that make this period require far more energy than most of the rest of the school year.

  1. We’re setting first impressions of everything. Everything I introduce – myself, our classroom library, math games, manipulatives, science experiments, etc. – I want the kids to love. I love these things (at least almost all of them) or I wouldn’t do/use them and I want the kids to be as excited as I am. I think I’m afraid that if I let my energy level fall I’ll send a message that something isn’t interesting or fun. I don’t want to inadvertently send that message.
  2. We don’t have any routines in place. Nothing runs by itself yet. Every time we head down the hall I need to tell them where to stop. Every time we start something new it is new. Nothing is old hat. That means I have to be on top of establishing the routines I want us to use. I’m spending a lot of energy reminding kids to push in their chairs, put materials back where they found them, and such. I know if I do this these things will become habit and the kids will take care of it. They’ll know where to stop in the hall, they’ll put things away, they’ll turn off the lights at the end of the day, they’ll stuff the Wednesday folders, they’ll stack the chairs for the custodians, and on and on. But right now I have to remember all of that and remind them to do it.

In a week or two this won’t be true any more. They’ll have the routines down. They’ll already know all our stuff (and either be excited or not). The year will be tough in other ways. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay awake past 7:30 pm when that’s true!

August Readings

I keep saving posts (by saving I mean leaving them open in tabs until I can’t take it any more) that really speak to me in some way to share. Sharing them here is a way for me to reflect on them more and a way to, hopefully, help even more folks see them. Lately I’ve been thinking about all that I’m missing in this, however. I read twitter threads that hit me hard. I retweet them but should I be sharing them here as well? I don’t know yet. More for me to mull.

Back at the end of July, Marian Dingle gave the keynote at Twitter Math Camp and she shared the text and images of her speech. It gets at so much of what I think is wonderful about the MTBoS these days. I’ve been wowed by that community for a long time but in recent years there has been a greater focus on issues of equity in mathematics and education in really powerful ways. Marian takes it to a whole new level. If you haven’t yet seen this, I can’t recommend it enough.

A piece from Nate Bowling really got at some questions that plague me. There are so many things I am passion about, so many things that we need to do better, so many things that matter in education and in our society. It’s overwhelming. Nate hasn’t solved this for me, but he’s definitely made me feel more hopeful.

It’s easy for us to get tunnel vision around our own issues. It would frankly be easier for me to stick to class size, teacher salaries, and school funding. But now more than ever, people who desire a more just and equitable society must show solidarity.

My two decades in education have been in schools with significant numbers of students of color. In my five years (including this one) at my current school, I think I have taught two white students. However, both schools in which I’ve taught have had majority white teaching staffs. And not just majority, nearly all. I so appreciated Sherri’s take on working in a PWI (predominately white institution).

The director of the school (who is white) openly acknowledged that ours is a predominantly white institution and I have no idea how many people really got that, really understood what he was saying, but I sure did.

I have never had an administrator publicly acknowledge this. I’ve worked for five principals and a host of assistant principals and this has never been addressed. And I’ve barely noticed. That’s all very telling.

Again Shanna Peeples manages to write powerfully about a topic that is exceptionally difficult. This time it’s about immigrant families being separated. She connects it to a story by Ursula K. LeGuin in a way that is both horrifying and important to read. Fiction can often move us and make us feel things even more deeply and strongly. I think that happens here and I firmly believe we need to be feeling this as deeply and strongly as possible.

I am going to be spending weeks going through this piece from Tracy Zager, checking out links, bookmarking things, sharing with colleagues. Her writing here about why starting the year by assessing students is a terrible idea is beautiful. The collection of better options she offers is a immense gift.

N. K. Jemisin won the Hugo Award this year. Again. She has now won it three years in a row. In 2016 when she first won she was the first African American author to win a Hugo for best novel. Then she just kept doing it, for all three books in this series. I’ve only read the first so far, but will definitely read the others (when I can give them the attention they deserve). Her speech, on acceptance of the award, is worth reading (or watching). She knows why her wins matter. She knows the challenges still faced. She pulls no punches. I loved her before this. I don’t have words for how much I adore and respect her after seeing this speech.