Category Archives: Uncategorized

My Ex-Non-Reader

The last student out of my classroom at dismissal today is often the last one out. All my bus riders walk out together, with me, up to the lobby to head to their buses. I’m often standing at the door, watching a dozen kids walk up the ramp and hurrying this little guy. He’s always at his book box with his backpack, shoving books in.

Today I said, “G, we’ve got to figure out a way for you to get those books in your backpack earlier!”

He responded, “Ms. Orr, I can’t live without books!”

I quickly reassured him, “I’m not asking you to live without books! I’m thrilled you’re taking those home. I just want us to figure out a better time for you to get them in your backpack so you don’t miss your bus.”

This exchange would gladden my heart no matter what. A kid who has that great a love for books would bring a smile to my face no matter who the kid might be. This kid, however, nearly made me burst with joy.

This kid told me at the beginning of the year that he didn’t like reading last year. His second grade teacher told me she could never get him reading, no matter what she tried. They both told me about his lack of interest in reading, independently, on multiple occasions. This kid now can’t live without books.

I don’t know what flipped this for him. I hope I had something to do with it, but I’m smart enough and experienced enough to know that it’s possible he was just finally ready. Even knowing that I’m going to think our book talks, read alouds, reading conferences, and extensive classroom library had something to do with it. And I will admit that when he asks me if we have the next book in a series or a book he’s heard about and I know we don’t…I order it. Immediately. He can’t live without books. Who would I be to deny him?

part of our classroom library

So Little Has Changed

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That means we’re all hearing quotes from his Dream Speech. We’re hearing about how he was nonviolent. We’re hearing how we was patient and worked with others.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Take 15-20 minutes and read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s not a quick read but it is worth every second. Unfortunately, it won’t read like it was written more than fifty years ago. Read it and see if it doesn’t fit right now.

That says:

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.

That could be talking about the NFL or Black Lives Matter or any other of so many things today.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the  oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words “Wait!” It rings in the  ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “Wait!” has almost always meant “Never.”

Sadly that reminds me of a Daily Show episode a few months ago:

Finally, from Dr. King’s letter:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels that he can set the time-table for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

There are many people today who say they are not racist or who say they are colorblind. Neither of those things is true. We live in a society that makes it impossible to not be racist. It is systemic and it is ingrained in us. Recognizing our own racism is far more helpful than denying that it exists. In that way we can become anti-racist. Both racist and anti-racist together. Identifying the things we do because of racism will help us to stop doing them and help us to realize how great the problem is and what it will require of us to help change it. Being ‘people of goodwill’ is not good enough.

This past week Dee Rees was on the Daily Show. I did not recognize her name nor the name of the  movie she directed, Mudbound, so I didn’t know what to expect when the clip began. It started off showing 10-15 people of color, in a rural area, sometime in the early-mid 20th century. My immediate reaction was that it didn’t interest me. My next reaction was to wonder why. I think, as much as I don’t like it, that I reacted that way because it was a cast of Black people. My racism was showing.

I watched the interview and loved Dee Rees. I definitely walked away with the sense that I want to see whatever story she is telling. (Interestingly enough, when I went to IMDB to be sure I was spelling her name and the movie correctly I noticed that the first four credited cast members are white. Did they choose a clip that didn’t show them purposely? Are those four characters truly the first ones that should be listed?)

I know I am racist. I don’t like it but that doesn’t make it untrue. I could make excuses that I am a product of the society in which I was raised, but I’d rather work to make that society a better one. I’d rather be more than a person of goodwill.

Dr. King is gone, but there are plenty of people doing his work. If you aren’t familiar with Melinda Anderson, start following her work. Sabrina Joy Stevens is another one to check out. Also Sherri Spelic and Shana White and Val Brown and so many others. This was not intentionally a list of women, but I’m not surprised to see it turn out that way.

Another Racist Decision

My heart is breaking. Again. It has happened a lot in the last year. The news today that the administration is ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from El Salvador is terrible. For seventeen years 200,000 people from El Salvador have lived in the United States, making friends, working, raising families (including many US born children), starting businesses, going to school…For seventeen years this has been their home. Regardless of any other issues, and there are plenty, that makes me question this decision. These are human beings who are being told they must leave their homes and livelihoods within the next ten months.

Many will also leave their families. Legally (if I’m understanding all I read) these individuals can take their children with them to El Salvador, but that seems unlikely.

El Salvador’s homicide rate — 108 per 100,000 people in 2015 — was the world’s highest for a country not at war, the most recent U.N. data shows.

Not only are these people being forced to leave the country that has been their home for nearly two decades, but they are being forced to return to a horrifying situation. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate for any country in the world that is not currently at war. That alone seems like a reason to continue TPS.

The economy in El Salvador is also an issue. Many people from El Salvador who live in the US send money to family members there. Deporting these individuals will hurt our economy (mayors of several large cities have argued against this due to the number of homeowners in their areas who will be impacted) and the economy of El Salvador.

I fail to see what we, as a country, gain from this move. I can see no argument for it beyond racism.

I am certain I have taught children whose families will be impacted by this decision. It breaks my heart. I wish I had any faith that Congress would step in and do the right thing.

These are my kiddos who didn’t miss a day of school in November and December. How many of them will have family members forced to leave?

Rereading Lost at School

Back in the spring I read Lost at School by Ross W. Greene and wished I had read it sooner. It validated so much of what I believe about children and helped me see how to better live what I believe. My timing, however, wasn’t so great. Reading it in the last month of school meant I did very little to try Plan B (the big idea here). By the time school began again I didn’t feel so confident in trying it as it had been several months since I read the book.

I’m finally rereading it and it’s a super slow process. The first time I read this book I devoured it. Now I’m reading it slowly, making lots of notes, pausing and thinking about students, past and present. It’s slow going. But worth it.

It has got me thinking that some of the things I do as a teacher that I am proud of and work hard at are maybe not so great for my kiddos…

Greene talks about how children tend to need routine and be somewhat inflexible in general. I think that’s true for the majority of kids. I pride myself on being flexible at school and being able to make any situation work. Am I helping my students learn to do the same? Or am I just ushering them through difficult situations? I think I should, at a minimum, do a far better job of communicating with my students when our routine changes.

Along the same idea, one of the big pieces of Plan B is identifying ‘unsolved problems’, regular events that are challenging for a student. This might be transitioning from recess back to the classroom, walking in line in the hallway, working with someone they don’t like so much, or getting started with difficult tasks. Identifying the  ‘unsolved problems’ allows adults and students to work together to help the child gain the necessary skills to be more successful in those, and other, situations. Instead of working with the child to address these unsolved problems, I think I typically work to remove them or make them avoidable without losing the academic learning that is happening. My focus has always been on how to ensure students are getting what they need out of school but I’ve been defining that pretty narrowly. I’ve been far more focused on the academic goals than I realized. If a kid has trouble walking in the hall I might give them a task as we walk or walk right beside them. But that’s not helping them be in control of the situation. Removing the issues may look like it’s solving the problem, but I think it’s a short-term solution.

This is my 20th year in the classroom. When do I truly figure out this job?

Families Facing Homelessness

Think about a time when you had a rough day at work

Factors: from as small as not getting enough sleep and feeling tired or starting the day off by arguing with your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend/child to someone close to you losing a job or getting questionable medical test results which might or might not be nothing or being in a car accident (maybe just a fender-bender) to significant trauma like the end of a relationship or a death in the family or your own scary medical test results.

Now keep in mind that you are an adult. You have (at least the illusion of) some control over the circumstances in your life. You have years of experience to help you cope with difficult situations. You have (hopefully) a network of family, friends, professionals to help you get through it.

And, even then, any of those above challenges can make it hard to do your job. It can be difficult to focus on tasks. Difficult to work with others, more or less so depending on your relationship with them.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over many years of teaching as I’ve had students who faced homelessness. Many of my students are always on the verge, including several in our school who were recently displaced due to a fire in their apartment building. Luckily no one was hurt, but it is unclear when/if they’ll be able to return to their homes. Some are staying with family, others are in long-term hotel situations. Many of my students live(d) with extended family or in apartments with multiple families. Others of my students have been in shelters when I’ve taught them. I am beyond impressed with the staff in the shelters and how hard they work to ensure kids have as much stability as possible as well as spaces for homework and opportunities for fun and enrichment. I’m also beyond impressed with parents who are facing such intense challenges but are doing so much to help their children feel safe, secure, and successful.

From Fran’s flickr

Homelessness is often seen as a problem faced by single, older men. That may be true for traditional homelessness. However, children and families are facing housing insecurity to a significant degree. Families may be staying with others for a while and then moving on. They may have a place and then lose it because of change in income or rent increases. There are so many factors that make it difficult for families to have a stable place to live.

This is a far-reaching problem that is surprisingly invisible to most of us. People who face homelessness, either consistently or on-and-off do an amazing job of continuing to function in our society in a way that makes their homelessness unnoticeable to most. Sara Goldrick-Rab has done a lot of amazing work around college students and issues of homelessness and food instability.

I got to thinking about this again because of a piece in the Washington Post a week ago. It could be easy to read that piece and think the researchers are overstating the problem, but if that’s your gut reaction, please pause and think more deeply. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the individuals being described rather that seeing it from the comfort of your stable home. I’m grateful to have never had to worry about where I would sleep at night or where my family and our things would be. Too many don’t have that luxury.

(It’s taken me a long time to write this. Quite literally as part of it sat in my drafts for months. Rereading it now I am uncertain why I wrote it. I’m overwhelmed by what so many parents and children are facing.)

Indoor Recess

I have a love-hate relationship with indoor recess. I love it because I can check email or get some things organized in the room. I love it when I offer the kids new activities (before long we’ll be pulling out the broken electronics to take apart) and they go at them with gusto. I love it because it’s temperature controlled. I hate it because the kids need a chance for some gross motor movement. Too many days of indoor recess and things get ugly.

We only had two days of school this week (Monday was a holiday and today and yesterday were inclement weather days – I can’t call them snow days as there wasn’t too much snow but the cold was absurd as we had below freezing wind chills for most of both days and most folks in our area aren’t prepared to dress for that well). Both of those days, however, were indoor recess days.

I always throw out five to seven different tubs of things for indoor recess (legos, various types of blocks, dominoes, puzzles, magnets, and such). Kids also draw or create their own activities or sometimes get out their laptops (although that’s surprisingly rare). I never can predict what they’ll want to do on any given day so I try to be sure they have plenty of choices. On Wednesday these two girls had a blast with the magnets.

They began by sticking magnets to various things around our classroom, a common activity. Then they noticed that two of the horseshoe magnets would attract or repel each other depending on how they turned them. They also noticed that these ring magnets would grab each other or push away but it took them a bit to figure out the connection to the horseshoe magnets (even though they explained to me the basic science with the horseshoe magnets). Once they realized flipping the ring magnet would change whether it attracted or repelled, they worked to make them all repel and see what that did.

My role was simply to smile and nod and be excited when they showed me what they were doing and figuring out. An easy job when they had smiles like those on their faces! Sometimes I really do love indoor recess.

Kids Lead the Way the Best

The ten to twenty minutes before lunch each day is our calendar time. It’s a chance for us to review and practice a variety of math skills: patterns, computation, fact families, money, probability, measurement, and so on. We don’t do everything every day and some things are more successful than others.

Today I was unprepared. I had the January calendar all set up back in December, but I haven’t paid attention to it since then so I wasn’t sure what we’d do when we all got there. Yesterday we were busy working on our hopes and dreams for 2018 (a future post because there’s some awesome stuff there) and that ran over into our calendar time. Today we trickled over there as I didn’t want to stop anyone from the work they were finishing on their hopes and dreams.

One of the things we do is add money for the date every day. Well, actually we don’t do it every day but we do add money for each day. We just do it once a week or so. We had a lot to add in December because our last day of school was the 15th. We started the process of adding all that before our winter break but didn’t finish. So I figured we could at least get that done today. Adding 15 + 16 + 17 + 18 + 19 + 20… is pretty time consuming.

One of the first kiddos to join me at the calendar said, “We need $553 to get to $2000.” We had $1447 already so he was right, but instead of saying that I wrote the equation on a white board: 1447 + 553 = 2000 and asked the others if they thought he was right. One girl asked if she could use paper. I said yes and then suggested she grab a little white board and marker instead. Soon a dozen kids had white boards and were doing some math. When someone got stuck they turned to a neighbor and worked together. I just stood there. A little bored, honestly. But good with it.

After a bit I finished the problem too so kids could check themselves – or let me know if I was wrong. The friend who initiated the whole thing noticed we were only adding $475 so we weren’t going to get to $2000. I asked him how short we were. He, and a few others, were off and rolling with that question.

Others began working on adding the $1447 and $475 to see how much money we have now. I did that as well but came up with a different answer than a student so I tried again. I ended up with a different answer but it was still different from my student. As it was time to head to lunch the first little friend and I used a calculator to check the answer. And found that he was right. Of course.

None of that was planned. I was lucky to have enough time (which was only about 15 minutes) to follow through with a student’s idea and keep following their lead. Not every single student was completely engaged during that time, but most were far more engaged than typical. I wish I could harness the feeling in the room during that short time. It’s what teachers are always striving for.

Hats and Hoodies

One of my students tends to wear a hat often (a winter hat like you’d wear outside to stay warm). This seems to be, to the best of our ability to determine, an issue of anxiety. It’s not new. It is something that has happened for periods of time every year he’s been at our school. I’m sure we have a school rule or dress code addressing this and stating that he should not be wearing the hat. I can’t really figure out why. Of course, I question lots of dress code issues.

I’ve got other students who like to put their hoods up. Some of them just for fun, others because their hoods have ears or other decorations that look really fun when they’re up but not so much when they’re down. I’m not bothered by this either. As long as I can see the child’s face I think it’s fine.

I’m wondering how others feel about this. Does your school have rules against hats and hoods? Do you enforce them? Do you agree with them? What reasons do you see for them? I’m genuinely curious. I know that for many years I told kids to take off hats and put down hoods inside. It was this little friend, in kindergarten three years ago, who made me question that. Why did I care that he had a hat on? I realized I really didn’t care.

Feeling Blessed

We have more than two weeks off for this winter holiday and I had big plans for what I would accomplish during that period. So far, I have checked off next to nothing. Nothing might even be a more accurate statement.

I’m sure in a week, when I’m back at school, this will stress me out. At the moment I’m okay with it. The past ten days have been wonderful. My husband and I went away for two days and two nights for our 20th anniversary (thanks to my parents being in town and staying with our daughters) to a wonderful B&B. We spent a wonderful Christmas Eve with my sister, her husband, and his sister’s family (including her two daughters who are 3 and 1 and completely darling). We spent Christmas Day with the entire family. Our girls created personalized Christmas gifts for the entire family. We’ve seen multiple movies with more on the agenda. Much time has been spent reading books and relaxing. It’s been fabulous.

Three generations are spending time together and it makes me so grateful. We spent Thanksgiving with my husband’s family (also three generations spending time together) and now Christmas with mine. Growing up we spent holidays with both sides of the family over the years and I loved it. My mom is one of five children and my father is one of four. As a result I had many cousins on both sides. I had three of my grandparents in my life until late in my 20s (and still have two of them now in my 40s). I’m so glad my children also have two sides of the family who they see regularly and love.

So next week, when I’m feeling stressed and unhappy about how little I accomplished, I will return here and reread this. Remind myself of how important this time with my daughters, my husband, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, how much that time matters to me.

The Greatest Gifts

In the week before our winter holiday one of my students gave me this:

In case it’s hard to see, it is a small penguin ornament. I believe he made it when he was with the speech pathologist that day. This is a student who spends a significant portion of every day out of my classroom, in a special education classroom. He spends about two hours a day, max, with me. He’s also had some serious trauma in his short life.

I think it was an in-the-moment decision, not a plan, to give me the ornament. Regardless, it was exceptionally generous. He worked hard to create it and could have taken it home to share. Or given it to one of many other important people in his life. But he gave it to me. And that means so much to me.

As a teacher of young children I am often given gifts like this. Gifts that might seem, to the casual eye, to be small, insignificant. Gifts that are, in reality, absolutely beautiful and thoughtful and kind. I can point out many things in our home that came to me this way (to my husband’s chagrin, at times). Many of my students have very little in the way of material goods in their lives. That they choose to share with me is quite meaningful. It is an act of love for which I am honored.

On this particular day, when this little boy gave me the ornament, another boy was standing right there. We were in the hallway after lunch waiting for the chance to use the bathroom. This second boy is one I’ve known since kindergarten. He also has faced some astounding trauma in his life. He also spends quite a bit of his day in the same special education classroom.

He watched his friend give me the ornament and immediately pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket (I have no idea why he had it there). He handed it to me. I can’t remember what he said because I was so surprised. I tried to return the money to him, suggesting that he should take it home and give it to his mother (the person in his life about whom he speaks the most glowingly and with immense love). He would have none of it. He pushed the bill back to me. I took it because it was clearly important to him that I have it. I thanked him for it but I’m certain I did not fully convey my emotions.

I know I work hard for these students. I think about them all the time, try to figure out how to help them grow, consider their interests and what I can offer them to build on those. But there is no way I give them anywhere near what they give me.