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Kids Are Quite Capable

One of the things I dread as a parent is taking my children for shots. In case you don’t know, my children are 10 and 14. I really thought it would be easier by now. I may some day get over the trauma of what it took to get our flu shots several times. I can’t judge them though, as I’m certain I put my mom through the same, if not worse.

Last year I managed to get both girls and myself inoculated but it was not a pretty experience. My younger one wanted to wait, she said she wasn’t ready. I was convinced she wouldn’t be ready, maybe ever, so we had to just get it done.

from NIAID’s flickr

Luckily, every once a while, I manage to make a smart parenting decision. Later, long past the trauma of the shots, I sat down with them both and talked about how best to go about this in the future. My younger daughter told me she wanted to be warned, to have time to prepare. The older one said, no way, don’t tell her until it’s happening. This year that’s what we did.

My oldest got her shot at her annual physical. She had very little warning. It wasn’t easy for her, but she did it. I told the younger one in the morning earlier this week that we were going to get our flu shots after school. When she got home we headed out. She never tried to delay. As we sat there filling out the paperwork and waiting for the nurse to call us, she was definitely anxious and dreading it, but she didn’t complain. In the moment she was tense and stressed, but again, there were no complaints or delaying tactics.

When given the opportunity, both of my girls knew exactly what they needed to make this process less awful for them. I was skeptical, especially of the little one. But they were spot on.

For the nth time (I’ve lost count long ago) I am reminded that asking kids is the smartest choice. Ask what they need. Ask how they’re feeling. Ask what works best for them. Ask how you can help. When in doubt, ask them.

I realize that children are not little adults and have things they need from us. However, too often, I believe, we are unwilling to trust them, to give them the opportunity to make their own choices. I think children struggle to make their own choices because they so rarely have the opportunity. This isn’t to say they won’t make mistakes. Of course, so do we adults. It’s an important part of our learning and growing. It should be for them too. It can be. We have to ask them and trust them.

Inspiring Writers

At the end of our language arts block (our reading/writing workshop time) yesterday, a couple of my 3rd graders came up to tell me how they were proud of themselves for something they had done as writers. So when we were all gathered on the carpet to wrap up our day, I asked all of them if they wanted to share something they’d done as readers or writers they were proud of. Their responses made my day.

  • I tried writing a sad story. (She doesn’t usually write sad things so this was her stretching herself as a writer.)
  • A (the student above) inspired me and I wrote a sad story too.
  • I’m proud of my creative ideas.
  • My words all made sense. (When asked how he knew that he talked about rereading his writing.)
  • In 2nd grade I wrote short things but now I’m writing a chapter book. I’m on chapter 5.
  • K (the student above) inspired me and I’m starting a chapter book too.

The fact that they inspired each other practically lifted me off the ground. What a beautiful community of writers they are.

Also, this was a brilliant way to end our day. Of course it was inspired and led by them.

Deep Down

It’s November, late November really, and that means things are tough. It means teachers have gotten through the anticipation phase of the year, right there at the beginning, all the excitement and high energy from both us and the kids. The endless possibilities, the new faces and names, the potential.

Then it was survival, just trying to check things off the list each day. Did all that critical paperwork get turned in to the office? Did I follow up with that student about a missing library book? Did I contact that parent to say how awesome their kid was in math today? Did I send my teammates that poem we talked about?

By November we’re in a groove. It may not be a comfortable one or smooth one or even one we like, but we’re rolling along. So this means we’ve likely hit the disillusionment phase. We’re tired. The days are getting shorter and shorter. The holidays are coming and our to do lists are absurd. We’re checking those boxes every day, every week, but we aren’t feeling good about it.

I am certain of this because I’m living it. Not for the first time, but somehow it always feels like the first time. I am surprised every year when I hit this point. When I am so deep in this trench, this ditch, that I can’t see a way forward.

from Andy Rogers’ flickr

Conversations with my teammates last week helped.  Not because they had ways to get me out of this spot, but because they’re there with me. They are feeling the way I am feeling. Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Not doing or being for our students what we want to do and be. I am not alone. How powerful that is. And how do I manage to forget that every year as well?

Then I spoke with a teacher in another school and learned she was right there with us. Not only am I not alone but it’s not just my school. This lovely teacher has no idea how much she lifted me by sharing her struggles. It sounds absurd, but not being alone is such a relief.

I’m still overwhelmed. I’m still exhausted. I’m still not the teacher I want to be. But I’m feeling a bit like I do every year in late December, when I know the days are far too short but they’ll be longer soon. I know I’m in this trench, this ditch, and it feels impossible to get out, it feels like we’ll be stuck for the rest of the year. But I have some confidence now that we won’t be. We’ve been here before and got out. We’ve been here before and made it to better places as the year went on. We’ve been here before.

If you’re here with me, with us, hello. If you’re a hugger, as I am, here’s a virtual hug. I won’t tell you that you shouldn’t be overwhelmed and exhausted and feeling a bit like a failure, I’m feeling it too. I’ll just remind you that it won’t last. You won’t feel this way forever. Please keep reminding me too.

Library Love is Real

For the past few years trips to our school library have happened during my planning time. When I taught kindergartners that meant the instructional assistant went with them. In third grade it means they get dropped off and picked up. While the planning time is critical to me, not being there for check out is painful. (This year it’s not even about planning time. I’m in a team meeting when my class goes to the library.)

As I have mentioned before, this year’s group are passionate readers and lovers of books. A few weeks ago we missed several trips to the library because of the book fair and would be missing another for a teacher workday the following week. As the kids had a four day weekend coming, I wanted to be extra sure they had books. I checked with the librarian and we snuck in on Friday to check out. It was heavenly. I could help kids find books they knew they wanted and talk with others about what they might want and even make suggestions when they had no ideas or couldn’t find what they so desired. It was chaotic and busy and fast but wonderful.

So I went back to our fantastic librarian and explained to her how much I hated not being there for checkout. She was in complete agreement about how much the situation stinks and willing to work to find a solution. We decided that my kids could have a longer library lesson (read aloud, research work, whatever it might be) and wait to check out until I get there after my meeting. That runs into the librarian’s lunch and planning time, but she was willing to sacrifice that (because she’s fantastic).

This week was our first go at this new routine. When I arrived in the library they were all gathered around in awe of the book the librarian was reading to them: Glow: Animals with their Own Night-Lights. It was a pretty cool book. When they could tear themselves away we began our book search. I helped students find books in the Inspector Flytrap series by Tom Angelberger and Cece Bell. I read the first one aloud to them a few weeks ago and many want to reread it and read the other two. I helped others find books by Raina Telgemeier (how they don’t just know exactly where to go for those yet I don’t understand as they are unbelievably popular). A few had specific titles in mind so we did some searching through the online catalog. We found some nonfiction titles on subjects kids wanted to read more on. I suggested some Kate Messner and Kate DiCamillo books for a few. It was all I hoped it would be.

We’ll lose some social studies or science time every Tuesday now but I think it is well worth it. Kids walked out with arms full of books and chomping at the bit for our independent reading time later in the day.

Pictures from a library visit earlier in the year because I was too busy helping kids find books to take pictures. I can live with that.

Emotional Roller Coaster

School days are busy days. Yesterday afternoon, after my students left, I sat down at my computer and opened up twitter for the first time in many hours. It was a bit of a smack in the face. Tweets about Louis C.K. and Roy Moore. Followed by a surprising number of tweets filled with quotes of people (white men, really) explaining why they can still support Roy Moore.

I was overwhelmed with emotions. Many different emotions, but one really shines through. Amazement and awe at the many women who are speaking up. I was raped at 16 and said nothing. I said nothing for a year and a half. Even when I finally did speak about it, it was not because I wanted to and I shared it with as few people as possible. It took about twenty years before I could talk about being raped and being a rape survivor without shame (mostly, anyway).

These women are speaking up knowing it may hurt their careers, their reputations, and those close to them. They are speaking up even though doing so is painful personally. They are speaking up because they believe this should not continue. Speaking up is unlikely to help them but they know it will help other women. So they work through their pain and shame. I have more respect for them than I can describe.

I was catching up on all of this as I was also trying to process a situation at my school. I do not know the family involved but it includes another woman who amazes me. She is dealing with far more than I can imagine and doing it all for her children. Her story is not mine to tell, nor do I know all of it. However, learning the bits I did took me through similar emotions as all the women speaking up about sexual abuse.

I wanted to cry over the struggles this family is facing. I was horrified by the fact that any family should have to face such struggles. I was awed by the strength and endurance this mother is demonstrating.

from tv’s Spatch’s flickr

It’s been a long time since I found roller coasters fun. I’m not sure I’ve ever found this emotional version enjoyable.

That’s where I am this morning. I am exhausted and horrified by how awful our society can be. That we live in a country in which men with power and money can treat women (and others) however they desire. That we live in a country in which many families face overwhelming obstacles because of their race, language, religion, and more. That some families (and individuals) are being forced down day after day by circumstances far beyond their control. Circumstances that are roadblocks for them but would barely be speed bumps for many of us. It reminds me again of what power privilege plays in our world. Having money and authority allows many to get away with terrible things. Being white, middle-class, educated, etc…these make lives easier while other lives are so much harder.

I am immensely grateful and astoundingly wowed by those who will stand up to fight back. Who will not allow those with more power and money to keep them down. Who will do all they can, against the odds, for their families or for others like them.

I am feeling beaten down and inspired in the same moment.

Noticing and Naming Strengths

Nearly twenty years later I can still remember my very first formal observation as a part of my evaluation cycle. I can remember the work that went into planning the lesson and the nervousness about teaching it. But mostly I remember what happened when I sat down with my principal afterwards. She pointed out many things I was doing well that I hadn’t realized I was doing. It was a very powerful meeting for me. Her noticing and naming those strengths she saw in me allowed me to build on them, encouraged me to do so.

When we are doing something new we need that. We need someone else to point out to us what we are doing well. Maybe we already know, maybe they are just pointing out the obvious. But I think, often, we don’t know. We are working so hard to do things well, at least certain things, that we may be completely unaware of other things we’re rocking. By recognizing all we are doing well we can continue to build on a solid foundation and grow broadly.

A couple of my teammates and I are doing some work together around our district’s Portrait of a Graduate. We are beginning by focusing on our students as communicators. As we get started, one of our big goals is to notice and name what our students are doing well as they talk, listen, and write about their thinking. There may be things we have to take the time to help them learn to do, but they are already doing so much so well. We want to be sure we’re helping them see that and continue to build on it.

Too often I know I am far more focused on the things my students can’t do rather than what they can. I’m busy thinking about how to help them learn to do those things they haven’t learned yet. What a different conference that would have been twenty years ago if my principal had taken that tactic. If she had focused on things I wasn’t doing or wasn’t doing well and talked to me about how to do them; would I even remember that now? I doubt it.

Diversity in our Classroom Library

For the past several years I have been quite passionate about offering my students diverse literature. I strongly believe that books need to be both mirrors (so that we see ourselves in books) and windows (so that we see others different from us in books). When I choose picture books or long-term read alouds for our classroom this is always a factor.

Given that this has been a priority of mine for several years now and we have a ridiculously large classroom library, I was feeling confident that my students have a plethora of diverse choices.

In that classroom library I have an ‘endcap’ (I’m calling it that now thanks to a friend who was, in a previous lifetime, my manager at a bookstore – endcaps are the displays at the end of rows). Each month I highlight a different  author. For October (when I got it rolling this year) it was Kate Messner. We read Marty McGuire and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt so my students were familiar with her books. She has an impressive range of genres and reading levels to offer students.

As I prepared to change the endcap for November I wanted an author of color. I wandered my classroom library and realized the only one I had a basket for (in all the baskets of various authors) is Carole Boston Weatherford. My other author baskets are all white authors (Mo Willems, Jan Thomas, Cynthia Rylant, Laura Numeroff, Ezra Jack Keats, Raina Telgemeier, Jon Scieszka, and more). That was quite a blow. Clearly I was not making the effort I believed I was in this area.

But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I headed over to the bookshelf in the corner that holds all the books I keep in reserve for reading aloud, sure I’d find some good options there. Nope. I have plenty of books by authors of color, but not a pile by any one author ready to display for my students.

The result of this disappointing realization, of recognizing how my passion was not being lived as I believed, was twofold.

  1. I still wanted to set up my endcap with a new author (and I’m saving Carole Boston Weatherford for a little later as her books, while they are picture books, are beautifully challenging and I want my students to have the ability to savor them). So Kate DiCamillo gets the honor this month. Like Kate Messner she has written a lovely range. We’ve read aloud Bink and Gollie and I’ve book talked Mercy Watson. She’s got wonderful books to offer. 
  2. I did some ordering. Soon we’ll have many titles from Jacqueline Woodson for a future month. And I’m considering who is next. I like to highlight authors who write both picture books and chapter books at various levels so that all of my readers have options. Some of my favorite authors don’t fit for us as the majority of their books are not for third graders (like Matt de la Pena and Meg Medina).

Do you have a favorite kids’ book author of color? I would love recommendations.

Reading Joy

I took this short video today of my class during some independent reading time. We hadn’t been to the library in the past two weeks (due to the book fair) and won’t go next week (due to teacher work days) so we went today. Normally my class goes when I’m in a meeting and I can’t be there with them. Today I could. I could help them find books, talk to them about books we’ve read together or they’ve read, and suggest new books for them. It was great fun.

It also highlighted for me how much this year’s class loves books and reading. One of my boys told me this week, “I really like reading this year. That wasn’t true in other years.” By coincidence, his second grade teacher told me today that he didn’t enjoy reading last year but told her he’s enjoying it this year.

It’s possible that I just got lucky this year and got a group of kids who love books. If so, bonus for me! Or maybe I did some things to make this happen. (Most likely it’s a combination. I can admit that.)

I got to reflecting on what I’ve done this year to play my part in their love of reading and books. (Because it’s important to reflect when things go well just as it is to reflect when things don’t. I need to know what to keep doing.) There’s no question in my mind that the time and energy we spent setting up the classroom library together made a difference.

I’ve also been very thoughtful about the books I’ve read aloud to my class. We began with Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina. Sixteen of my nineteen students speak Spanish and this book is about a girl in Columbia who learns English. It also includes some words in Spanish, giving it a comfort and a connection to my students. They loved it. Then I told them Juana Medina is on twitter (we tweet at the end of each day as a wrap up) and we sent her a couple of tweets. She responded that day and my kids were on cloud nine.

(For the record, the groaning when I stop reading a chapter book continues. It’s the best sound.) We’ve tweeted to other authors since then and it’s a common question when we read a new book. “Ms. Orr, is that author on twitter?” The ability to reach out to authors so easily, even if they don’t respond (and they can’t possibly always do so), is pretty amazing.

So, our classroom library, our read alouds, and tweeting to authors have been really great this year. I’ve also done a better job than I’ve ever done before of book talks. Two or three days every week I’ve talked up some books. So far I’ve focused on various series, both fiction and nonfiction.

At the end of each book talk I ask the kids who might want to read one of the books. Those names then go on a post it note and the book goes to the first kid on the list. When that child finishes the book, they pass it on to the next name on the list. Eventually the book ends up back in our classroom library for anyone else who might be interested. (This is an idea I got from some wonderful elementary school teacher whose blog I read or who talked about this on twitter but I have no idea who it was, sadly.)

There are plenty of things I’m not doing well this year, including things in reading like reading conferences and meeting with guided reading groups. Hopefully those will get better. And then there’s all the other content areas we study. But for the moment, I’m going to celebrate the sheer joy we are all sharing in books and reading. Because it’s joyous.

More Thoughts on Flexible Seating

I wrote recently about the flexible seating in my classroom and the reasons I love it. This morning my students took a math assessment (I have many thoughts on that but will hold off for a moment) and needed space to work independently and without distractions. I gave them that direction along with the statement that two people at a table was enough. Otherwise, they were on their own. I was prepared to step in if necessary, but they all found spots with plenty of working space.

I left out one kiddo because her family has requested that I not share pictures or videos of her. She sat at a desk that sits by itself.

The kiddo who walks across briefly chose to work at our standing table. He was walking then because he decided late to take off his shoes and he had just put them on our shoe shelves. He did a lot of moving as he worked at that standing table though!

Watching them this morning reinforced my love for our flexible seating. Some kiddos have their favorite spots where they go a lot. Others work in different places all the time. It’s really fascinating to me to see.

True Teamwork

Working with families is something I feel very strongly about. Families know their child far better than I ever will and, rightly, have a significant influence on their child. I can learn so much from families and, together as teacher, family, and student, we make a powerful team. Too often when schools talk of working with families what they really mean is “tell them what they should be doing to help their child”. The school is always the expert and the families are there to learn. I find that greatly frustrating. There are definitely things about which I have expertise and can help families. However, there are so many things about which families have expertise and can help me.

Every month I (try to) invite families into our classroom. I began doing this when I taught first graders because I wanted families to have the opportunity to spend some time where their child spent their day and with the people they were with. Big school-wide family nights are wonderful but I wanted time in our classroom as our community too.

This month we had just wrapped up our ladybug unit by releasing our ladybugs into our school habitat. So we invited families in to share all our hard work and learning from that unit. I knew that wouldn’t take us too terribly long, even as excited as we had all been about the ladybugs. So I decided to add a craft activity.

Full disclosure, this is not my area of strength. I’m not naturally crafty. I did some online searching for fall activities and decided to try making animals out of fall leaves. Our unit included a wide variety of animals when we explored life cycles, food chains, and habitats. So this fit.

My daughter and I collected a bunch of leaves, I grabbed a bag of googly eyes, and offered the kids and families construction paper. I was skeptical of how this would go. I didn’t really have a vision for how these animals could look, beyond what I’d found when I looked online.

I need not have worried. The kids were awesome. Their creations blew me away. A reminder that when I trust the kids, things go pretty darn well.


Mostly families watched their kids create but this mom worked in true team fashion with her son. It was fabulous.

This animal reminded me of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld’s book, Duck! Rabbit!