Still Figuring This All Out

One of my students this year can’t consistently participate in synchronous instruction. There are a variety of reasons for this, all of them valid. He’s an awesome kid with an amazing family and I miss having him in class regularly.

We (family and teachers) worked out an asynchronous plan for him. He is still doing all of the work and doing it well. Last week I made short screencast videos for him to explain assignments and do some quick teaching about content. I was also glad to have some kind of connection with him still.

Midway through last week I realized those videos could be helpful for all of my students. If they missed some information or directions or if they’ve forgotten what to do by the time they go back to finish something days later, the video could be useful. So this week I made the videos without talking directly to this student and attached them to the assignments in our google classroom. We’ll see if it helps.

I did make a few videos specific for this student, including a read aloud of a book. I am still glad for the individual connection with him through those.

Would I make these videos if it weren’t for this student? I don’t know. It’s not extra work for me, right now, as I’m already making them for him (that’s where it’s extra work). I’d like to think I would because I do think they’ll be useful for lots of kiddos. Again, I’ll guess I’ll see how this plays out. (It’s quite possible that making the videos will actually save me time in the long run as I won’t explain things as many times or repeat information. Maybe. If so, it’ll also be good for my mental health.)

#Educolor The Moment Is Now The Movement Is Now. Black T-Shirt Front

I was wearing my Educolor t-shirt at laptop distribution when I got the chance to meet this kiddo. Since then we’ve bonded even more with Hamilton references. Such joy.


No Good Answers

First of all, there are no good answers. Not only are there no right answers but truly no good answers. Nothing we do is going to truly serve everyone involved. We’re in an awful place and it is hurting everyone. It is definitely hurting some folks more than others, however.

Right now I am working harder as a teacher than I have ever worked in more than two decades of this career. At the same time, I am doing less for my students and their progress (academic, social, emotional) than I’ve ever done. I can’t do for them all they need and all I’m capable of doing in this virtual setting.

  • I can’t have a quick conversation with a student to check on how they are doing, academically or emotionally or whatever.
  • I can’t see the work students are doing to ask a prompting question or suggest a strategy or just engage them in conversation about it.
  • I can’t make quick, on the fly changes to group kids or offer kids breaks or whatever. (I can make some changes, but the virtual environment is far more rigid than our physical classroom.)
  • Things take longer in this virtual environment. Breaking into groups requires waiting for the software to move everyone into breakout rooms. Even if that only takes 5-10 seconds each time, it’s adding up. Wait time is longer because we can’t see each other to gauge people’s needs to talk or not.
  • Kids can’t talk to each other. They can’t turn and talk to a partner about a book we’re reading or the math strategies they’re trying. They also can’t just have a conversation for fun about anything they want.
  • We can’t glance back at our previous work on the board or the walls as we keep going. We can save our work (I’ve got plenty of screenshots of charts we’ve made and of student work) but we can’t just have it around us and visible to us all at any time.

Those are just a few of the challenges this current setting involves. And that’s just from my end of things. The challenges for families who are now serving as instructional aides for their young children while working from home or taking care of other kids or finding a safe place for their child to be while they are at work are also significant. The lack of social interaction and, for some at least, of physical activity for young children are more challenges. It’s not a good answer.

Going back in person isn’t a better answer. It might solve some of the above challenges, but it brings new ones. The most obvious is the risk of infection to students, staff, and the families of both. That’s a significant concern.

Going back in person doesn’t look like school looked a year ago. Many of the things that aren’t working in virtual learning are still not going to work. Kids won’t be able to work in small groups in meaningful ways. They won’t be able to turn and talk with a classmate. And they can’t all be in the classroom at the same time which means we either double the number of teachers or we have some kids in the classroom and others joining online at the same time. Oof.

from Thomas Cizauskas’s flickr

from Travis Wise’s flickr

There are no good answers.

The question, it seems to me, is what school means to us. Do we have to get kids back into school buildings so families can get back to something more like the normal we knew? What is the most important goal for schools? Teaching students academic content? Helping students grow as thoughtful, productive, caring people?

Until we decide that, we can’t know which of the possible options, none of which are good, is the one that makes sense. And when that decision is made by a district (or school or state or whatever) it will highlight the values of that organization. For better or worse, it will tell us what matters.

With the caveat that we often see what we want to see. So assuming that an organization that is returning in person doesn’t value teachers may not be accurate. It may be. But it may not. This is complex. And, no matter what, it sucks.

The Power of Stories

Last night I showed my undergraduates (I’m teaching a children’s literature course for a nearby university) this TED talk. I have long loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing (both fiction and nonfiction). This TED talk is one I have seen many times and still find thought-provoking each time.





My Wednesday night group is a fabulous one. They’re thoughtful and willing to share (either by speaking or putting things in the text). I had struggled with the best way to facilitate discussion of some sort after watching this. It’s a lot to take on and, in the best of situations, a challenging discussion. We are most definitely not in the best of situations and I’m not convinced we’ve established enough trust to engage in these types of conversations meaningfully. No matter how hard I’ve tried. The setting is a challenge and I’m inexperienced when working with undergrads.

So I created some interactive slides for sharing. Each slide asked the question, “What is a single story you know about…” with a different group. I tried to include groups who are often stereotyped in our society. So I had slides for people living with financial hardships, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people of middle Eastern ancestry, people who are overweight, people who are over 75 years old, people who are exceptionally wealthy, and such. I put digital post it notes on each page for students to record their thoughts.

I pointed out that they’d show up on these slides anonymously and suggested they could add single stories they don’t actually believe but that they’ve heard. We took about ten minutes to record thoughts and it was amazing. Students were writing on the slides and jumping back over to the chat to share their thoughts on what they were seeing. We took a bit to reflect on the slides at the end.

Many students remarked on how many of these stories they had heard. How frequently these stories are told in our society and how pervasive they are. One student mentioned how detrimental they are. Not only for the many people who are not in those communities, but for those who are. It began in reference to the stories told about people living with financial hardships, but it was quickly expanded to other communities. Even when you know that the stories being told about your community are not accurate, they are often still internalized and cause shame and challenges.

These stories are windows and mirrors in ways that are harmful and painful. Which makes me feel even more strongly about the importance of books that offer kids windows and mirrors in more meaningful ways (as well as tv shows, movies, video games, and more). Our kids deserve so much more.

So Much Book Love

There is so much beautiful, powerful children’s literature out there these days and it is such a gift. I am grateful beyond words to the authors and illustrators who are creating such art. Most of the time, I feel I don’t properly appreciate it. I like it, I enjoy it, I share it with kids, but I don’t always fully appreciate what is being given to us.

I am teaching two sections of a children’s literature course for undergraduates at a nearby university this fall. I’ve never done this before and it’s a serious undertaking and I am loving it. It is also helping me slow down and really bask in the books.

In our focus on contemporary realistic fiction, I read aloud Last Stop on Market Street and Carmella Full of Wishes, both written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Last Stop on Market Street was one of those books I fell in love with the first time I read it. I had preordered it when I was teaching kindergartners. I read it to them countless times that year. Scholastic offered a 5 book set of it in paperback and I ordered that as well. When the Spanish text came out, I got that one too. I definitely still have at least one paperback copy, my original hardback, and the Spanish book. Several of the paperbacks have been loaned out, to kids or teachers, and not made their way back home. I’m fine with that. The more folks with access to this book, the better.

Last Stop on Market Street: de la Peña, Matt, Robinson, Christian: 9780399257742: Books

There is nothing quite like reading this book to undergraduates and having them drop thoughts in the chat throughout. The lines that strike me, also struck them.

“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, C.J., you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful”

I read that line and the chat lit up. It was awesome.

The experience with Carmella Full of Wishes was similar. We are focusing on reading with a critical literacy lens and these books led to such amazing conversations. Both books have so many issues to discuss without smacking you in the face with them.

My students explored poverty, homelessness, immigration, siblings, class, and more.

We dug into big societal and structural issues and explored gorgeous writing and illustrations. How can one book do that? It astounds me. And I am grateful to Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson. Eternally.

Meaningful Engagement

I’m justifying using this photo, which I took on a walk yesterday, by saying that I’m getting at the root of some issues. Really, I just wanted to use this photo.

I teach 3rd graders. Twenty of them, at the moment. Nothing I do is going to genuinely interest all of them at any time. Some will stick with me because they’ve been trained to behave that way. Others will stick with me because they don’t want to make me feel bad. Some will stick with me because they are actually interested in what we’re doing. And who fits into which group can be constantly shifting. (This could also be said about my undergraduates.)

I’m okay with that. I’m not striving for constant attention from twenty eight-year-olds all the time. I also know that there are many distractions at school, whether school is in our building or in their homes. I just don’t see or hear many of the distractions when they are in their home and I’m in my home.

Of my twenty kiddos, I’ve noticed two who seem to be checked out often. They don’t speak up often (although they do speak up some) and I notice they don’t always click on links to interactive slides or such. So this morning I scheduled some one-on-one time with each of them. (Monday mornings are designated for small group time in my district.) I told them each that I had noticed they seemed distracted some and I wondered if they had noticed it too. Both told me they had.

One shared that there are days when both parents are at work outside of the home and the older siblings are in school too. They all have different daily schedules and this student is finding their movements around the house to be distracting. I inferred that when dad is home, he helps keep everyone on track too.

The other student said that the family dog and the younger sister (who has special needs) both cause distractions. This student also mentioned how distracting it is when certain students turn on their mics to talk because their homes are quite loud.

I then asked each of them what I could do to help them or if they had any ideas of strategies they could try to help themselves. The first student felt it would be helpful if I checked in regularly. That might be me asking that student for their thoughts more frequently or sending private messages in the chat to check in. Just more frequent reminders to engage.

The second student asked that everything be repeated three times because it can be hard to hear. I pushed back against that, as it seems a bit unreasonable and boring for those who are constantly engaged, but we agreed that directions and big ideas could be added to the chat to be sure no one missed them.

These two, short conversations with kids were so helpful for me. I hadn’t really considered (and it pains me to admit to it) that some students may not be hearing everything for a variety of reasons and not want to ask for things to be repeated. I can be far more proactive about that.

My goals this morning were two-fold. I wanted to problem solve with these kiddos in the hopes of increasing their engagement and building their strategies and I wanted to check in with them and remind them that I care about them and am invested in them.

I didn’t anticipate learning as much as I did. I should have, but I didn’t.

Controlling My Responses

After eight years of teaching fourth and fifth graders I made the move to teach our local level IV fifth grade class (my district has four levels of advanced academic program services, otherwise known as gifted services and level IV sends students to special centers to be in special classes all day – some schools have opted to offer local level IV classes rather than have those students leave their neighborhood school and go to a center – I have many thoughts on this). It seemed like a new challenge and I was in need of that.

In my 7th year of teaching I had the phenomenal opportunity to coteach language arts with our literacy coach. We managed to finagle things and coteach together again the following year, my first year with the level IV class. On the second day of school, our literacy coach came in and did an interactive read aloud with the class. At her first stopping point they all immediately turned to a neighbor and began discussing the text. She waited. And waited. And waited. I finally leaned in and whispered, “They’ll just keep talking.” Our experience had been that we could wait for a natural pause in the conversations and move on. That wasn’t so true with that group of kiddos.

Another difference I found was that I had to repeat directions more frequently than in the past. I don’t know if my kiddos didn’t feel they needed to listen to the full set of directions, if they got distracted after the beginning with their brains going off on tangents, or what it was. But I had to repeat directions frequently. I eventually got smart and made notes on the board to help remember directions.

Right now, in a fully virtual environment, I am repeating directions a lot. I’m not giving complex sets of directions, by any means. But kids are asking me again and again what they are supposed to be doing. I will admit to finding it frustrating.

At the same time, I recognize that there may be many distractions for my students that I can’t see or hear. A parent or sibling may have asked a question or needed help with something. They may have needed to run to the bathroom or grab a drink of water. Maybe they were just distracted because they’re human and we get distracted. I have no idea why they missed my directions. But I get to decide if my response is one of patience, assuming they had a reason I’d see as valid, or annoyed because I’m assuming they don’t. No matter how annoyed I may be feeling, I am working to keep that emotion out of my voice and of my face as I repeat directions. As many times as necessary.

It has also occurred to me that in our physical classroom space, kids have another option when they’ve spaced out and missed directions. They watch their classmates. They look around to see what they should be doing. Or even quietly ask a friend what to do. They have strategies for problem solving in those moments that don’t exist for them right now.

Sometimes the calendar one of my students gave me last Christmas really hits home. This is a reminder to myself about my students, my family, and me.

There truly are some things about this moment that are wonderful but there are many things that are challenging. I am trying to remember that it is not only challenging for me, it is also challenging for my kiddos. (And I say all of this thinking of my third graders and of my undergrads. We’re all facing so many of the same challenges.) I would rather show too much patience to a student who is goofing off and not being responsible than to not show enough patience to a student who is working hard in the face of many obstacles. I want to err on the side of care.

Opportunities Flying By

This moment is such an amazing opportunity to rethink things, shift the way we do things, and really try new ideas. The opportunity is right there.

But instead I find myself drowning in trying to figure out how to do what I’m used to doing, just virtually. Pausing to really question and innovate isn’t happening. I can’t figure out how to make it happen. I need brain space and I need time when I feel like I can slow down and think deeply. I don’t have either of those things right now. It’s as if I am in a batting cage and balls are flying at me. I know there is a better way for me to hit the balls but they just keep coming and I don’t have the chance to plan for something different.

from Gunther Hagleitner’s flickr

I am feeling all of the emotions these days and feeling them all so strongly. I’m trying to remember to see the positives, because they do exist. Even now. But I’m also immensely frustrated by the lost opportunities.

Maybe there are teachers, leaders, schools, and districts who are doing this. Who are taking this moment to reconsider what they’ve always done. Maybe. I hope so because I want to be able to learn from them.

Finding Humor

As teachers we aren’t supposed to have favorites. But let’s be real, we’re human. I have taught hundreds of kids over the past two decades and I have loved (most of) them. There are definitely kids that have stuck out and stuck with me though. Four weeks into this school year I can already identify two that I think will fit that category. I have a delightful class this year. I know it. I hear it from the special education teacher and instructional assistants who support my kiddos and me. I hear it from the music and art teachers my kids see. My class is awesome.

One of the ones who really sticks out is one I got to meet in person when we did laptop distribution. She’s new to our school, as our many of kids because we’re on a military post. She’s an only child and she’s an absolute hoot. Last week, during one morning meeting, we did a movement greeting. (Coming up with fun, meaningful greetings for virtual morning meetings is not one of my favorite things.) In a movement greeting, students say good morning and share a movement they are doing. For example, “Good morning, I’m jumping.” Then the rest of us copy them. (Or don’t. It’s virtual. We can’t see everyone. It’s all good.) This specific student, when greeting us, said, “Good morning! I’m sinking into despair because of this virus.” It was said in a upbeat, cheery tone. I had to mute myself while I lost it.

This morning I had to take my students through the process of logging onto our district’s site for online assessments. The number of reasons I hate this are more than I can count. I hate it when we’re in school together and I hate it even more right now. My 13 year old had an assessment that was complete but could be retaken so we worked together to make a screencast video of the steps for logging in. There are quite a few. Then we went slowly through the process this morning as a class. It was not fun. I went super slowly because some students have iffy internet and I didn’t want to lose them as their devices loaded.

The student I mentioned above raised her hand at one point. I asked if she had a question and she said (in an upbeat, cheery tone that I’m beginning to think is just how she always sounds), “Ms. Orr, I got bored waiting and I was playing around and now my screen is turned sideways.”


from Pesky Librarians’ flickr

Fortunately, when my 17 year old was a toddler she managed to hit hot keys on my dad’s laptop and do the exact same thing. He was amused and frustrated. The frustration came from the challenge of trying to navigate his mouse to do an online search to figure out how to fix the problem as this was before smart phones and that was the device they had. It was quite entertaining to my mother and me.

I told this poor kiddo to hold off for a bit (read a book, take a bathroom break, grab a snack, whatever to kill a bit of time). I got the rest of the class through the absurd process of logging on and taking a quick three question thing I’d created to give them this practice (it was full of silly, stupid questions). Then I had them start a new math activity and went to a breakout room with this little one.

I walked her through finding the crtl and alt keys on her keyboard and holding them down. I told her to click an arrow key. I don’t think anything happened quickly enough so she clicked a few times. Then her screen was spinning. She was laughing as she explained it to me. Then we were both cracking up. Finally I told her to wait, hold ctrl and alt, tap the up arrow once, and then WAIT! That fixed it. She squealed with excitement.

If we’d been in person we would have solved that problem so much more quickly but it would have been so much less entertaining. I say that with confidence because I’ve had students run into this problem multiple times in the past decade or so.

There are so many things right now that are hard and sad and awful. It’s easy for me to get completely caught up in the negatives. There are still a lot of positives and I am working to be sure I see them.

Looking for Any Wins

We’ve been teaching and learning online now for nearly four weeks. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in more than twenty years of teaching. And I feel like I’m doing a worse job than I’ve ever done. I’m actually not beating myself up over it as I do recognize the challenges and limitations. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to do better.

In light of that, it seemed worth taking a moment to notice the things I am doing well. I’m trying to give my students as much control and ownership over their learning as possible. For my third graders that means they are now in charge of the daily pledge (which I hate) and morning message and choosing our exercise/dance/breathing breaks. Starting Monday they’ll be in charge of our morning meeting too. It also means as much flexibility as I can figure out how to manage when it comes to the activities they’re doing. For my undergrads it means lots of choice in their assignments and lots of small and whole group discussion.

For my third graders, I was feeling really frustrated by how much they wanted time to just chat together and how I couldn’t figure out what to do to make that happen. This week, on Tuesday and today, I opened up our classroom space for most of our hour lunch and recess time. I was there but working on other things, just as I likely would be if we ate lunch in our classroom as a whole class. Not that the whole class was there, of course. But about a third of the kids were. On Tuesday there was a lot of joke telling. Today they took turns (completely on their own) sharing things like a lost tooth and a ‘fully functioning’ Ironman mask.

On a daily basis there are things I hate about what I’ve planned and how we’re spending our time. But every day it’s getting better. Every day is more driven by the students and less by me. That alone is hopeful.

On a side note, fostering this one isn’t making this easier. He’s cute but he has no respect for boundaries.

Didn’t Know I Needed It

This semester I’m teaching two sections of a children’s literature course at a local university. I’m still teaching third graders full time and I’ll admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed lately. Tonight was week five for my Wednesday night section and the students participated in their first literature circle, reflected on that experience in a journal, and then we explored poetry. I prepped for tonight over the weekend and had decided that I wanted to kick off our poetry exploration by listening to some poets read or perform their poetry. Hearing poetry, especially when read by the poet, is powerful. I wasn’t assuming my students have any great love of poetry or even a ton of experience with it and I wanted to pull them in.

So I started with some poems that wouldn’t fit in the category of children’s literature. I greatly enjoy Billy Collins’s poetry so I began with his Introduction to Poetry. At the end, one of my students said, “Ummm…I thought poems were supposed to rhyme.” We had a brief discussion about how many poems for children do rhyme, but that much of poetry does not. (For the record, I so appreciate students who are willing to speak up and share their confusion. I’m confident most don’t feel comfortable doing so and therefore I’m unaware of it. Especially in the virtual setting.)

Next up, I shared Langston Hughes’s I, Too.

That was awesome. Having the text there as we listened to his voice was fabulous. The chat in our virtual classroom was flying with students responding to this poem.

Finally, I offered them Maya Angelou performing Still I Rise.

I had watched it before. I wouldn’t have shared it if I hadn’t. But tonight? Tonight I listened to it from a position of just an hour earlier having listened to NPR with stories about the indictment, and more importantly, lack of indictments in Louisville and about RBG. I haven’t been listening to NPR much because it’s normally an in-my-car activity and I am not often in my car these days. I listened just before class began and, until sharing these poems with my students, hadn’t realized how much it had hurt to hear those stories. Then Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou literally shared their voices and the power and strength of them was exactly what I needed.

After those poems, the same student said, “I don’t think I know what poetry is at all.”

What a gift that was for me tonight. Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes and students who were open to new learning.