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Changemakers to Share with Students

In the past week, in response to the white supremacists and their actions in Charlottesville, I’ve written about books to address contemporary racism and books about valuing all of us. As one who has spent the past decade working in early childhood education (mostly with 1st graders and kindergartners) I believe books are a wonderful way to help young children grapple with challenging and complex ideas.

I turned my tv on yesterday, prepared to go straight to Tivo in order to have some background noise as I cleaned and organized. Unfortunately, I turned it on in the midst of the president’s press conference and sat, jaw-dropped in horror. I was floored to hear the elected leader of our nation speak in a way that was so supportive and encouraging to white supremacists and so demeaning to the rest of us. I had planned to write about books one could use to help children see how change can be brought about, books about people who stood up for minorities of many sorts, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. Instead, in light of the president’s words yesterday I’m focusing on racial minorities. Hopefully I’ll get back to other books as well, as I think they matter greatly. But right now, the greatest threat in our nation seems to be to those with darker skin.

Choosing only a few books was quite a challenge. I’ve looked for ones that are truly appropriate for young children (leaving out many of my favorites). I have included fiction and nonfiction texts, although mainly focused on true stories of people who pushed for change. It was important to me to include books about women of color on this list as they are far too often ignored.

Nonfiction Books:

I’m starting with The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford because it is about a female and a young person. I want children to know that they have power and that’s easier to see when the book is about someone like them, rather than an adult. I also believe this book is especially apt right now as some of the images in it, of the white adults screaming at Ruby Bridges as she heads to school, look eerily similar to images we saw this weekend in Charlottesville. The looks on too many white faces haven’t changed too much in nearly 60 years.

Another young female who has stood up and spoken up is Malala Yousafzai. There are two good books for young children about her. One is Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya and illustrated by L. C. Wheatley. The other book is Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter. Malala’s story is far more about gender than it is about race, but as she is a woman of color I am including her here (even though it may be a stretch).


This list would be incomplete without a book about Martin Luther King, Jr, and there are many wonderful ones from which to choose. I’ve opted for Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier in part because of the phenomenal illustrations. It’s also unusual to have a person’s words included in this way in a book for young children. It’s powerful to share King’s words with them in addition to telling his story.

I also must include a book about Rosa Parks so here’s Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Again, Collier’s illustrations are one of the reasons I think this book is worth sharing. But I am also a huge fan of Giovanni’s and she does a wonderful job of telling Parks’s story in a way that is meaningful to young children.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick is a bit more challenging than others on this list. Again, it has such amazing illustrations that I think it is a bit more accessible to young children than the text might suggest. The story follows Anderson’s life from her childhood on, which I like. Seeing people as children is helpful for children, I believe. The book also continues to show her success in Europe while she was held back by racism here.

At this moment I feel more strongly than ever about showing young children Barack Obama and the fact that a man of color was also president. Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Bryan Collier (I clearly have some favorite illustrators) is my favorite for young kids. It follows Obama’s life from childhood and gives children a chance to see themselves in our president.

Another book about children is Let Them Play by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Chris Ellison. This is a new one to me. It’s about an all-Black Little League team in South Carolina in 1955. They end up state champions by default because none of the other teams will play against them. Seeing segregation is such a personal way happening to children is something children can understand.

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Edel Rodriguez has a cover that could win me over. The story of Sotomayor’s childhood will feel familiar to many children of color and watching her strive and succeed, overcoming challenge after challenge is powerful.

Finally, for nonfiction books, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh is a personal favorite. I love Tonatiuh’s work and I’m grateful for a book that highlights the segregation against Latinos in this country. Stories of school segregation always include children and are relevant to them.


Fiction Books:

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B. Lewis is a story of two young girls, one Black and one white, who have been told not to go past the fence. They sit together on the fence, not truly breaking the rule, but not remaining segregated either. Seeing two children overcome the biases of their community is beautiful.

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Shane W. Evans is another that is new to me. An older, Black woman on her way to vote sees her families history as she goes, including the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and herself marching from Selma to Montgomery. As it seems the Voting Rights Act is in serious danger right now, this book felt important to include.

Finally, Carole Boston Weatherford has written so many books I love, I’m glad to include Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. The story is told from the perspective of an 8-year-old, which you probably know by now brings me joy. A child’s perspective is powerful. She is mostly an observer of the events in her area, but she does help make posters.

I believe children need to see that people before them have stood up, spoken up, and fought for a better world for themselves and others. I want children to see that in themselves as well.

Books About the Value of All

Yesterday I shared books that I think will allow and encourage discussions with young children about contemporary racism. As I was reviewing books I love I realized there were several other categories I could create. Thanks to friends on social media, I decided this was worth my time (mostly for me but if anyone else can benefit as well, great).

Too many of our children are consistently sent messages that they are not valued in our society. Often these messages are subtle and therefore harder to address. As always, my go to for young children is literature. So here are some books with messages about the value of all of us, books that will encourage conversations about how everyone matters.

It brings me great joy to include a book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld here (we got to see her at the National Book Festival some years ago and remembering it always makes me smile – he was at the Gaithersburg Book Festival this spring and I ended up in an unexpected conversation with him in which he was quite gracious). The book is Exclamation Mark. A former colleague and fabulous human being mentioned this book as one her students had an amazing conversation about at one point, discussing self-worth and finding value in you whether you fit in and know your place or not. It’s definitely a story that will encourage discussion of ways people may be different but how important and valuable everyone is.

Another one mentioned by a friend is Mem Fox’s Whoever You Are.This one is clearly aimed at young children. It rhymes and has bright, colorful pictures. It’s message of the ways in which we are different and the ways in which we are the same is one that can lead to powerful conversations.

A couple of years ago I discovered One Family by George Shannon and illustrated by Blanca Gomez. I believe I initially checked it out from the library as a counting book to use with my kindergartners. I quickly discovered the book was so much more. Each two page spread shows a family, beginning with two people, then three, then four, etc. The families are widely diverse racially as well as in their members. Some families clearly include extended family, others have two parents of the same gender. The words are simple but the illustrations are powerful. Every family is valued and students will be able to see themselves and their families throughout the book.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall is a story that can be used at a wide range of ages. The main crayon is labeled Red but colors blue. For the majority of the book the crayon is encouraged to try different things in order to be red. Eventually, another crayon helps him to see he is actually Blue. This book can encourage discussions about being yourself in spite of how others see you.

The final book on this short list is one I haven’t read (but will do soon). Written by Julius Lester and illustrated by Karen Barbour, Let’s Talk About Race seems to be quite popular. I have respect for other work by Lester so I have faith this will be as good as I’ve heard. The book encourages students to tell their own stories and to realize all that makes them who they are.

I’m sure there are many books I’ve forgotten or don’t yet know that belong here. I’d love to hear about them. I believe strongly in the power of books to help young children (really to help all of us) to think through important issues and questions and to help us better understand the world. It is especially important to me to have books in my classroom that help my students see the value in themselves and others.


Addressing #Charlottesville with Young Children

Young children may be unaware of the recent events in Charlottesville as well as other acts of hatred towards people of color (or other groups). Some parents choose not to share these events with their children because they want to shelter their children from such hatred. Parents decide at what age their child is best able to learn about issues of racism, violence, and more. Parents know their children best and we, as early childhood educators, must respect that.

However, we also can’t ignore what is happening in our country. We will have children in our classrooms who are aware, either because their parents have made a conscious decision to talk to them about what is happening or because they are listening and picking up on things not intended for their ears. We have a responsibility to help our students understand and process all that they are hearing. And to do so in a way that is appropriate for their age.

Teachers of older students can set the stage for a frank and open discussion of the events in Charlottesville. They can spend time reading and processing together different news accounts or social media posts. This is not so appropriate for young children.

In my experience, literature is a wonderful way to get at big ideas and concerns without coming at them head on. However, too often the books we read with children, especially young children, present issues of racism as something in the past. There is power in these books and they are important, books about Jim Crow, slavery, segregation, and those who stood up to move us forward. These books matter and I am grateful they exist and I share them with my students. In this moment, I am looking for something different. I am looking for something that allows my students to consider racism as a problem in our lives right now.

Upon reflection and some serious searching, I’m not aware of too many books that do this for young children (there are fabulous ones for older students). If you know of any, please share as I will clearly be needing them as the year gets under way.

One classic is Amazing Grace, written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch. It is the story of a Black girl named Grace who wants to play Peter Pan in a play at school. Others tell her she cannot because she is Black and a girl. Grace is unwilling to give up and her grandmother supports her. Her grandmother takes her to see a ballerina who looks like her, helping her see that such dreams can come true. In many ways this is a gentle story, a way to enter into discussions with young children about race and gender as barriers.

A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Eric Velasquez should really belong in the category of historical books as it takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’m including it here for a couple of reasons. One is that it is about children being a part of a march and too often we don’t give our students images that allow them to see themselves in these positions. We share about adults but not children. This book gives them the chance to see themselves as the main characters and that is powerful. The second reason is that the book could, in many ways, take place today. Just a few years ago, when marches were less common, I think the historical nature of the book was more obvious. Now, as people are marching quite frequently, I think the book will speak to students differently. The book shows the marchers and those who scream cruelly at them, something that feels quite relevant now.

Another favorite of mine is One by Kathryn Otoshi. This book is often used in early childhood classrooms to talk about bullying but I think it’s message works here as well. It is a story of colors, blue is picked on by red and the others don’t speak up. Red gets bigger and bigger. 1 shows up and stands up for itself, showing the others that they can do the same. Of course, it is a book for young children and ends with everyone together in a way that is overly optimistic when considering white supremacists. The final line, “Sometimes it only takes one.” is worth discussion, however.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco is not my favorite of her books, but it has a place in this conversation, I think. In this story a young boy is mean and makes racist statements. The principal, Mr. Lincoln, a Black man, works with the boy to help him see the value in all people. It is a bit overdone, but is a story that will encourage young children to discuss the ways people are treated and why and what can be done to change that.

These next two I haven’t read so I am not certain if they are all I hope they will be. However, I’ll be reading them soon and, as I say, I am hopeful.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote God’s Dream, along with Douglas Carlton Abrams and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. The idea of the book is Tutu’s vision of God dreaming of all people together, regardless of race, language, religion, etc. The pictures are all of children, a highly diverse collection of kids playing, sharing, and praying together. This book seems like one that would encourage young children to talk about whether or not this dream has been achieved.

Anything by Kadir Nelson is worth having in your classroom so I feel confident recommending Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans in spite of not having read it. It is told from the perspective of a 100 year old African-American woman. The book covers the great majority of American history through the experience of African-Americans. My only question about it is how it ends. It includes Barack Obama, so it may end on a more positive note than would seem accurate at the moment.

I’ve tried to list books here that I think allow for and encourage discussions of racism today. Some groups of students may need other discussions as well. Some students may need to hear books that help them see the value in all people. Some students will need books that show the value in themselves. Some students will need the history, a better understanding of all that has led us to where we are now (although that’s difficult when students are quite young), but all students need some sense of our current reality. The above books, I believe, are ones that will help young children understand the world as it is, explore what that means to them and others, and lead to discussion of ways to raise their voices and be a part of improving our world.

Discussing current events, especially when there is violence can be scary for young children (and not-so-young children). This is why I believe we must respect parents wishes when it comes to what they believe their children should know about what is happening in the world. As I also believe we still need to help young children understand the world in which they live, I have found books to be a way in. Hopefully these books, and others like them, will allow young children to be a part of discussions of racism and hatred without requiring their awareness of events they may not be prepared to understand. Hopefully, such discussions will help children be a part of working to ensure events they may not be prepared to understand are less likely to happen in the future.


After nearly 20 years of teaching I am convinced that content area knowledge and pedagogy are not the most critical skills for a teacher. We spend a lot of time talking about how best to help students learn to read, write, compute, problem solve, think, and more. Those conversations are definitely worth having. However, without conversations about equity, bias, and structural racism and sexism, I don’t think the rest matters too much.

If it were up to me to hire new teachers (and thankfully it is not, for a lot of reasons) I would be looking for individuals who are willing to reflect on their own thinking about students and families. Individuals who can recognize the structural issues that are hurting many of our children. Individuals who will take the time to question whether or not what we are doing is truly serving all children.

I believe individuals can learn how best to teach students to read, write, and more. But learning to value all children and recognize that our society does not do so is much harder. I want to work with teachers who will advocate for their students and their families. I want to work with teachers who will fight against the systemic ways we are holding back so many. (Fortunately, I have and do work with many teachers who fit these descriptions.)

Some of my kiddos from last year. I care deeply about them as readers. I care even more about them as people. That impacts what I do as a teacher.

As an elementary school teacher I have had reason and opportunity to be involved with a variety of professional organizations. I have attended conferences hosted by ASCD, ISTE, NCTE, NCTM, and NCSS. I have presented at conferences hosted by those organizations. I have written pieces published by some. At any given moment, I am a member of about half of those organizations. They are all doing work I respect and for which I am grateful.

Given my above thinking, however, the organization that most speaks to me and to which I am dedicating the most time and energy is ASCD (as well as my state affiliate, VASCD). The other organizations listed above have a content area focus: technology, English, math, or social studies. ASCD does not. As a result, ASCD is focused on teaching and learning, equity and poverty, global engagement, and more. This feels like the right fit for me.

I appreciate that a larger, international, professional education association is asking important questions about equity and poverty, is publishing books focused on these issues, and is bringing in keynoters and presenters to discuss these topics at conferences. These issues are critical for a significant portion of our children and we can not ignore them. I’m grateful ASCD is doing this work and I will continue to be a part in whatever ways I can.

(This is not to suggest that ASCD is perfect. Nor that the others are not doing good work. NCTE is doing phenomenal work around diversity in literature and equity issues. NCTM is also moving in this direction in important ways.)

Starting to Unpack and Set Up

 A couple of weeks ago I walked into my newly cleaned classroom (the same one as last year which is delightful as I’ve had four rooms in the past four years). I stood around, wandered slowly, reflected on the space. Then I started moving furniture. I may end up moving things around again, but I walked away that day feeling pretty good.

For the first time in my nearly 20 years of teaching, I’m trying my table in the middle of the room rather than in a corner. As I’m only at my table when I’m working with groups, I like the idea of being centered (somewhat) there. It’ll also require that I keep things more organized as I won’t have anywhere to just drop piles of stuff…

I want the space to be as flexible as possible so that the kids own it quickly. My walls will stay blank for us to fill together. There will be no names on tables as the kids will decide where they want to work at any given moment.

The next time I was in the room I wanted to get rolling with unpacking and organizing but I had trouble getting started. I’m in the midst of an internal struggle over my classroom library (a significant percentage of what needs to be unpacked). I want the students to organize it but that is time consuming. I’m trying to figure out how best to make that work. So I didn’t touch those boxes.

I also have a lot of boxes of books I keep for read alouds and mentor texts. I need to cull those as I have far more than I can use. That’s an intimidating task so I didn’t tackle it either.

Instead, I worked on small areas of the room. This is our Wonder Window. I didn’t use it well last year so I’m working on how to make it a more useful, interesting, appealing space this year (and how to fit it into our days).

This will organize our different kinds of papers for writing, allowing students to choose what works best for them at any given time.

Our math materials are ready too, along with strategy games. We didn’t use the strategy games at all last year. I’m hoping having them out and available will increase the chances we do so this year!

There’s a lot of thought at the start of each year about what should be out, visible, and easily accessible. We have bean bags and spinny chairs that lived in our closet last year. We got them out during reading time but not any other time of the day. I want them more easily accessible this year so that students feel more comfortable grabbing them anytime.

This room isn’t mine, it’s ours. We’ll spend a lot of time in it together all year and it needs to work for us all. So I’m working through how to have it ‘ready’ for day one but also ready for the kids to adapt, change, and make their own.

The Power of Shared Experiences

As our girls get older we, as a family, tend to spend less time together. They have interests outside of us and our home. They also have devices that attract their attention at home. We still eat dinner together as a family most nights, but time beyond that isn’t as certain as it used to be.

This has made me realize how much I appreciate the shared experiences we have and how powerful they are. Some of those experiences are huge, like this summer’s trip to the Pacific Northwest and last summer’s trip to Harry Potter World. Other shared experiences are briefer: the Mamma Mia performance our oldest and I attended last week and the multiple Doctor Who episodes our youngest watched with her daddy while we were gone, seeing The Big Sick together, watching West Wing and Series of Unfortunate Events episodes, and reading. We still read books as a family. We don’t manage to do it every night anymore, but we still value that shared experience. (Our current read is Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive which is great fun as it’s divided into sets of three pieces, two of which are true and one of which is not. You get to try and figure out which one is the lie.)

Not my family, sadly – from David Mulder’s flickr

Reflecting on what these shared experiences have meant for us as a family has me thinking about the classroom. I read aloud many, many books throughout the year: some picture books, some nonfiction, some novels. Those experiences bond us as a group. We return to them throughout the year, referencing stories or things that happened as we read.

Field trips are similar. Sometimes it’s the bus ride that is remembered and recalled throughout the year. Other times it is something specific we saw or heard or did. Whatever it may be, that shared experience shapes our time together far beyond that day.

Some shared experiences are unexpected. A surprise visit from a former classmate. Snowflakes falling during a fire drill. A funny comment that hits us all at just the right time and place. A question that prompts a challenging or heartfelt conversation.

I think it’s a given that we, as a class, will have shared experiences throughout the year. We spend so many hours together I believe it is inevitable. I’m grateful for that. The shared experiences I plan, the read alouds, the field trips, will be important for us. But I think the unexpected ones might be the most fun and might bring us together as a class, as a group, as a family, even more.

Teaching is Like Driving, Part II

Our oldest daughter starts high school in a few weeks. It’s hitting me that there are some really big milestones coming up and one of them is driving. (Not that she is looking forward to it. She’s really hoping self-driving cars will be ubiquitous within the next two years.) As a result, I’m more reflective about my own driving as I think about preparing her to be a driver. I’ve been driving for almost thirty years. It’s a very different experience now than it was for me then.

I learned to drive in a manual transmission. My mom took me out to a church parking lot when it was empty and taught me. We jumped around that lot a lot. I think she may have chosen a church parking lot thinking a higher power might intervene in this process. Starting there gave me a chance to master the basics of shifting gears. By the time we drove in a more open space, I was ready to think about other aspects of driving. Which was good, because there’s a lot to think about!

From Andi Jetaime’s Flickr

Now that I’ve been driving for two-thirds of my life it’s tough to remember how difficult it was to think about all the things at one time. To know where other drivers are on the road. To be aware of my speed and how it compares to the speed limit and to other drivers. To think about where I need to turn. To decide if that yellow light means stop or not given my distance from it. To watch my rear-view mirrors. It’s exhausting to consider.

I feel the same way about teaching. I’ve been at this for two decades, not three, but it’s a different experience for me now than it was back then. Just like much of what I do as a driver is automatic now, much of what I do as a teacher is.

I don’t have to think so carefully about the language I use in my classroom now because I’ve been doing it for long enough. It is natural. I’m aware of what’s going on in different areas of the classroom without having to think about it. I have a sense of the foundational skills students need before they’re ready for the next steps. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I do as a reader, writer, mathematician, thinker, in order to understand the process my students are going through. I’m able to take all the work, thinking, and experiences of two decades into my classroom each day.

As a new driver it was terrifying (I totally get my kid’s fear). The same was true as a new teacher. Time and experience mean that it isn’t constantly scary now. And I can stretch myself as a learner and teacher because the basics are solidly there.

I’ve worked with brand new teachers who were phenomenal and far exceeded anythign in was doing in my first few years. I’m not saying one needs experience to be a strong teacher; I’m saying it sure does make the job easier.

Teaching Is Like Driving

My husband and I took our honeymoon to Spain. We balanced our contributions to that trip: I spoke Spanish and he would do all the driving (he was 25 by the trip and I was not so this was required for the rental car). The problem we faced, aside from my lagging Spanish, was that he didn’t drive manual transmission. I did. The months leading up to the honeymoon involved him, at 25, learning to drive all over again. At one point he said to me, with great frustration, “I used to be a good driver and now I suck!” (For the record, he had no trouble driving us all over Spain, even with getting directions in my limited Spanish. And the next car we bought for him to drive was a manual transmission. Not only had he mastered it, he’d come to love it.)

My own children getting to ‘drive’ with their aunt.

When, after ten years of teaching fourth and fifth graders, I switched to teaching first graders, I completely understood his feeling. I can remember thinking, “I used to be a good teacher and now I suck!” I had felt, at that point, like a highly proficient teacher. I was National Board Certified. My school had nominated me for teacher of the year for my district. I was mentoring new and pre-service teachers. I knew what I was doing. Then, suddenly, I didn’t.

Just like my husband and the manual transmission, however, I kept at it and found I loved it. This time it didn’t take ten years for me to feel as confident as I had before.

At this point, I think I could learn to drive just about anything: motorcycle, motor home, Maserati, and more. It would take time, at first, to figure it out, but all of my driving experience would make that process easier. The same is true for teaching. I’ve taught fourth graders, fifth graders, first graders, kindergartners, and third graders in the past two decades. I’ve taught adults as well. If I suddenly were teaching high schoolers it would be difficult and would take time, but I think I could get the hang of it and do it pretty well. All of my experience would support my growth.

Project? Check!

I have a long history of having a great idea, jumping in without enough forethought or preparation, and ending up abandoning it. There are good ideas I do manage to complete, but the percentage is not impressive. Today I managed to improve my batting average. Of course, that’s mostly because there was outside influence pushing me to pull this one off…

About a month ago I created a GoFundMe campaign as a part of their Teacher Appreciation Week promotion. My goal was to create summer bags for kids with things to help them keep learning all summer. Many of our students do not have summer camp or travel or similar experiences during the summer. We often see summer slide with our students and I was looking for a way to make that less of an issue.

Thanks to generous donors we were able to create bags for 55 kids today. We gave bags to students in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. The thought was to aim these at students who were old enough to be independent in their use of the materials.

We had books for readers who are just getting started up to middle grade novels and nonfiction.

Every student got a spiral notebook, colored pencils, a pen, and a drawing notebook.

Every student got a bag they could use to gather their goodies. They got to decorate their bags if they wanted.

Two bookmarks for every student.

Two pencils for each student.

Every student got two ten-sided dice and directions for math games using them.

More books

Even more books

Several of the math games work best if recorded. We laminated them, in English on one side and Spanish on the other, and gave the kids dry erase markers so they could use them again and again.

This morning we brought the kids in by grade level to create their bags. They decorated. They picked out four books each. They picked a spiral notebook and a drawing notebook. They got copies of the math games and picked out dice and dry-erase markers. They got bookmarks and pencils. They walked out with a tote bag full of fun (I hope).

It was a bit crazy, but two colleagues were fabulous and gave up their time to help out. The kids were thrilled. Multiple kids said, “This is fun!” which is what we hope they’ll keep saying all summer. One fifth grade girl cracked me up as she was picking out dice and markers and said, “I feel like I’m shopping at the mall!”

Getting all the materials actually went pretty smoothly. The math games, however, were my snag on this one. I ordered the dice and the markers, but procrastinated on putting together the games. Luckily we have fabulous folks at school who translated the games for me quickly (for which I totally owe them). I made the copies of the games and laminated them yesterday. But I didn’t have time to cut them out before leaving school for an event. This morning I was beginning to panic. Getting everything set up before my students arrived (as I wouldn’t have free time between their arrival and our distribution) would be time consuming enough without needing to cut out hundreds of laminated pages. I got one game done but knew that was it. So I cut the other games into sets of eight and enlisted the help of my 3rd graders.

At least fifteen of my kids started their day cutting out laminated pages. They thought it was fun. Thank goodness.

Now if I can just remember how good it feels to actually complete a project the next time I get in over my head…

Just Getting Going…

In my first few years of teaching, before I had children, I spent the first week after school ended sleeping and reading. I needed to catch up on both those things. (When my children are grown I plan to return to this. Sleeping and reading are precious.) Most of what I read that week each summer was light, fun. After about a week sleeping and reading would bore me. I needed more. So I began to read the professional books I’d been eyeing all year but hadn’t been able to tackle as I tried to keep my head above water as a new teacher. Then it would get ugly. I’d read these books and reflect on the previous year(s) and I’d fall into a funk. All I could see were the ways in which I’d failed my students by not doing this, that, and the other.

Now, as I am wrapping up my 19th year in the classroom, I am having a bit of a flashback. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve done a better job of reading professional books during the school year (my summers aren’t quite as open and free as they once were, a result of a variety of choices I’ve made). I no longer hit the summer and beat myself up for not being the teacher I want to be. I can read professional books, reflect on them, try things, reflect some more, try some more, and so on. But I just finished reading Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How we Can Help Them by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. And I’m doing a bit of berating myself for not reading it sooner. (It was published  in 2008.)

The big idea of the book is kids do well if they can (also the title of the second chapter). Greene’s premise is that children aren’t challenging because they’re lazy, or seeking attention, or trying to manipulate us. They are challenging because they lack certain skills that would help them do well. Their behavior is maladaptive because they do not have the skills for adaptive behaviors. As a result, rewards and punishments are not going to help these challenging students. If they just needed the right motivation or consequences then their behavior would change. For some students we’ve been trying rewards and punishments for years without success. And yet we continue.

I’m having a flashback because reading this book makes me feel the way all those professional books did when I was a new teacher. It shined a spotlight on how I have failed students. I got rid of any sort of structured reward or punishment system from my classroom years ago. I knew I didn’t believe in that. But that didn’t mean I had a better plan. For the majority of my students, the ones who have strong skills that allow them to be successful, having or not having a reward system doesn’t matter. For my challenging students, having such a system would just be a constant reminder of all they can’t do. Yet.

Lost at School is structured in an interesting way. In each chapter Greene lays out or reinforces the philosophical beliefs behind his ideas. He then explains how to implement them. There’s a Q & A section that is informative, as well as sometimes humorous. Finally, each chapter ends with The Story Continues… In the very beginning Greene starts a story with a specific student, teacher, and administration. Throughout the book that story continues, widening to include more of the people in the school. I found it quite helpful to have all of these pieces woven together.

I’m sorry I read this book in the last month of school. I’m sorry I waited almost ten years to read it. (Full disclosure, Greene also wrote a book titled, The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. It was originally published in 1998, the year I began teaching. I wish I had read it then. I’m reading it now.) But I’m glad I’ve read it now. I will reread it, maybe many times. I’m starting to try some of the ideas. Even without that, I’m finding myself responding to students differently. The kicker is, the way I’m responding now? It fits my beliefs about children. The way I’ve been responding for years didn’t. I’ve only begun this journey but I’m looking forward to next year and continuing to problem solve with my students.