Category Archives: Uncategorized

School Buildings Can Do So Much

ASCD’s Empower17 was an astounding and exhausting few days in Anaheim, CA. I’m full of thoughts about it and what I learned there. While in CA I reflected and wrote for SmartBrief about the sessions I attended. If you’re curious about those, you can find them online. I wrote about the Successful Schools Showcase, a new feature at the conference. I also wrote about a session Robyn Jackson did on meaningful feedback. I was also lucky enough to hear Zuriel Oduwole (she’s a 14 year old filmmaker and awesome) speak and I wrote about that one. (I think I wrote one more piece that should be up soon.) If you’re interested in the conference in general, there are lots of pieces by many folks here.

Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA

The final session I attended was Bob Moje, a fellow Virginian. He’s not an educator, in the traditional sense, but is an architect. He and his firm have designed many schools in Virginia, such as Manassas Park Elementary School, Buckingham County Primary and Elementary Schools, and Discovery Elementary School. There are quite a few more listed on Bob’s page, but these are my favorite.

Energy Dashboard from Discovery Elementary School

We do so many things because it’s what we’ve always done or because it’s a habit. For many things that is just fine. We can’t analyze or question everything we do. But sometimes, we really need to take a step back and do some serious thinking. Listening to Bob talk about school design made that very clear to me. He talked about school design the way many educators talk about teaching. The idea that we need to ask what we want, what’s our goal, what do we need to get there, and what are the best options available to us.

The great majority of schools I’ve spent time in (as a student, as a teacher, as a parent, as a visitor) have looked pretty much the same. The shock and excitement at seeing something different, something innovative in a school says something about how rare that is. We know exactly what to expect when we visit a school, no matter where we are in the country. One of the biggest problems with that is that schools last a long time. A school building may be used for fifty years or decades longer. Renovations are expensive and limited. It’s difficult to take a shell and make it into something new. Typically renovations make that shell larger or newer-looking. Not different.

The fact is that the building in which a school, a group of learners, spends its time, makes a huge difference in how that time is spent. Our principal and librarian have been doing an amazing amount of work to renovate our school library. Their greatest challenge? Lack of money – no, although that’s a big one. Lack of ideas – not at all, there are plenty of those. Lack on innovation – no way, they are thinking very creatively. The greatest challenge is that the space is set. They can’t change the rectangle with the few windows very high up. If they want to try something new, they have to make it happen in that space.

There is such potential in school building design. But what we tend to do is what we’ve always done.

Quick Judgments Are Harmful

Yesterday afternoon we went to see Sing! Before the movie began I noticed the young girl sitting in front of me, about five or six years old. She was wearing a winter cap with words around the bottom of it. All I could make out were HERSCARO. I thought there was a break between the S and the C, but that wasn’t completely clear. I tried of lot of different possibilities, trying to figure out what her hat could say. Nothing was truly fitting. Finally, she turned some and I was able to make out that it was CAROLINA PANTHERS. Someone with more interest in sports would likely have been able to figure that out. I couldn’t.

It got me thinking about how often we make judgments based on only some of the information. It’s human nature to do so. But with social media we often make those judgments quite loudly now, rather than just to ourselves. There are positives and negatives to this fact.

This video has been flying around the internet. The first time I watched it was because it had been shared on twitter with the comment, “Frankly women have to do this all the time and we generally don’t get this flustered when it happens.” I watched the video and saw a frustrated dad, hilariously darling children, and a harried mom. I was really bothered by it. I saw the dad shove his daughter away without even looking at her. I saw the mom fly in, completely off balance, grab the kids, and skid out, dragging the door shut as she seems to be falling to the floor. The whole scenario made me uncomfortable.

Watch it now, can you see it through that lens?

I was genuinely worried about the mom because the way I was seeing the dad treat the children seemed so callous that I was afraid he was angry with her as well.

After much discussion on the internet I am seeing this video through a completely different lens. A friend pointed out that he probably can see his daughter on the screen so he’s not randomly just pushing out at her. That hadn’t crossed my mind. His facial expressions don’t look as angry to me now as they did when I first watched it. He does seem flustered, but not upset in the way I had seen before.

Another friend pointed out that the mom seems to be holding her pants up. I wonder if she had tried to take a quick bathroom break and the kids took off. It would also explain the way she is moving. It’s not that she’s scared of him, but that she’s scared of losing her pants as she tries to get her kids back out of the room.

I can watch the video now and be amused by it rather than angered. And feel some sympathy for both parents. But that took seeing it from different perspectives.

My response to the video landed me in hot water on social media as several people I don’t know called me racist. I’ve seen this label being put on many in response to this video because people have assumed the mom is a nanny. I never suggested that because that didn’t even cross my mind. But apparently the way I was seeing the mom made me racist. Now I’m identifying with the dad in this video as I’m feeling people making a quick judgment of me based on very little information, just as I did to him.

I pride myself of giving others the benefit of the doubt. When I am annoyed at another driver or a person in the grocery store, my brain immediately begins to think of reasons I might behave the way they are behaving. I try to understand and, therefore, have some patience. It seems I’m less likely to do that online. I think this is a far greater challenge to our society than I had realized. These quick judgments we make, based on 140 characters, or a brief video, or a FB update, are causing us to be more isolated and more divided than ever.

It’s difficult to have conversations that will move anyone forward if we’re all judging quickly and identifying each other with labels that we find highly offensive (troll, racist, libtard, etc.). Those labels do clearly fit some, without any question at all. But once we’ve slapped those labels on, it is awfully hard to have any kind of conversation. We see ourselves as needing to educate the ‘other’ rather than learning together. Together, in any sense, becomes almost impossible. And I think we need together quite significantly right now.

So, to this working dad, I apologize. I hope you and your lovely family had a good laugh together after this. Your kids seem to own their world and that’s exactly what they should do at their young ages. I also, sincerely hope, you have avoided online attacks and seen only the people who are loving this video. (Although I recognize the futility in that hope.)

Without Women…

On this Day Without A Woman I am feeling cranky. If even half the women in the country stayed home and did nothing today it would shut it all down. But we won’t. Some will and I have so much respect for them. The rest of us…We aren’t willing to do it.

At my school alone, if all the women stayed home, there would be no one to make breakfast or lunch for the kids, no one staffing the office, and fewer than ten men (if we include custodial staff) to take care of our 600+ students. For whatever reasons you want to assign us, the women at my school aren’t willing to force that to happen.

How many subways, trains, and buses would be still today if all women stayed home? Our hospitals would certainly shut down. It would be awfully tough to eat out, stop by the grocery store, or get phone calls answered at just about any business.

One of the reasons we saw an impact, however small it might have been in some areas, from the Day Without Immigrants was because businesses supported their employees. Restaurants closed for the day. Hotels gave people the day off with pay.

That’s not happening today. The expectation that our society continues as normal means that women are working today. For many, taking the day off could have had significant repercussions. (Our district certainly discouraged taking leave for today.)

I’m grateful to the women who have stepped up by stepping back today. Thank you for being willing to let balls drop in your world in order to show how important we all are. I’m sorry I’m not standing with you.


(I am quite aware that my crankiness stems from the fact that I wasn’t willing to take this day off. I am at school with my third graders today. I’ll be teaching my grad class tonight. I didn’t feel I could not do those things so I’m doing them. And I know that’s a huge factor in my crankiness. On the plus side, I’m wearing red and intend to spend no money today. Well, other than the parking garage so that I can teach tonight…)

I’ve Got It Easy

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how easy my life is. (This isn’t to say I won’t complain about how challenging things are and how busy we all are and how many balls I’m dropping all the time.) We’re a two-car family which means we have a lot of flexibility in our lives. We are financially able to purchase the things we need when we need them. We have good health care so we’ve been able to see specialists when needed and get prescriptions. We have steady jobs with paid leave. We take a lot of these things for granted. All of them probably. But so many people don’t have these luxuries.

from Anthony Dean’s flickr

Someone on twitter today shared this Atlantic article. It’s a few years old, but no less true now than it was when it was written. Please take a few moments and read it. If you don’t yet understand the realities of living in poverty (and I am sure I don’t fully understand them) this will help give you at least a small window.

Barbara Ehrenreich writes about taking different entry-level jobs that are available to women (hotel housekeeper, waitress).

What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.

She goes on to detail some of the challenges faced by people living in poverty. Problems that are little bumps in the road to those of us in the middle class are often huge obstacles for people in poverty. Recognizing this is one small step toward making a more equitable society.

It’s time to revive the notion of a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, who are disproportionately women and especially women of color. Until that happens, we need to wake up to the fact that the underpaid women who clean our homes and offices, prepare and serve our meals, and care for our elderly—earning wages that do not provide enough to live on—are the true philanthropists of our society.

See All the Implications

Educators complain frequently about helicopter parents (parents who are always hovering around their children, always stepping in, overly involved). Educators also want parents to be involved and engaged with school and their child’s education. Of course, we only want them to do so in the ways that we want.

from Wesley Fryer’s flickr

I have to wonder how often we’re a part of creating helicopter parents as well as children who are unable to take responsibility or advocate for themselves. I heard a story on NPR last week about school systems texting parents when students grades were dropping or students were missing assignments. It made for an ugly commute home because I was so irritated. Then that story showed up on KQED’s MindShift blog.

Take it away, Peter Bergman and Eric W. Chan of Teachers College, Columbia University:

“In a field experiment across 22 middle and high schools, we [sent] automated text-message alerts to parents about their child’s missed assignments, grades and class absences. The intervention reduces course failures by 39% and increases class attendance by 17%.”

That’s from a draft paper they’ve just released. They say the intervention was especially helpful for students who were struggling academically. The students’ GPAs improved by a quarter of a point on a four-point scale. And students were more likely to stay in school.

That definitely sounds good. Students are getting better grades. Students are staying in school. That’s hard to argue against.

But I’m going to do so anyway. These researchers found these significant results at the high school level, although they tried the same strategy with middle schoolers. It didn’t seem to make the same difference there. Could that be because middle school students have parents who are paying attention already and these texts aren’t telling them anything terribly new?

High school students still need parental support. There is no doubt. However, they are close to heading off to college or to work, to some form of independence. If their parents have been receiving text messages every time they miss an assignment (or maybe only after they’ve missed a few assignments) is this helping them take control of the problem? Why not send the text messages to the students?

What’s our biggest concern as educators? Our students’ grades? Or our students’ ability to be independently responsible? I think both are important, but this strategy of texting parents is only supporting one of those goals. We are, as usual, valuing grades and test scores over everything else. That’s one small piece of a human being.

When we implement strategies like this one, we need to be thoughtful about what it means. Not just what it means for the goal it is addressing, but what it means on a larger scale. I think we quickly move forward with things all the time that help in one area but harm in others. We aren’t paying enough attention to the harm.


Seclusion and Restraint Regulations

This week I spent time at the Department of Education for Virginia, attending a Board of Education meeting. If you’ve never attended a board meeting for your district or state, I highly recommend it. This is the second time I’ve attended at this level and I’m learning so much about the political and policy processes involved.

The most interesting topic on this agenda was the regulations on seclusion and restraint. During public comment early in the meeting this was overwhelmingly the most frequent topic. People came from a variety of organizations to speak about concerns on the new regulations. Concerns that the regulations are too harsh or concerns that the regulations are to restrictive for the school personnel. My gut says the regulations need to ensure that students are not treated in harmful ways. But I recognize that there is so much I do not understand about what is needed by administrations and especially at different age levels, so I’m not ready to make a strong statement as I would like.

from leniner’s flickr

I am, however, ready to make a statement on something I think has been missing from the conversation. My concern with many regulations that are designed around punishment or anything that students might see as punishment is that they are often followed in ways that harm students of color. I don’t have the statistics on seclusion or restraint, but I would be willing to bet significant amounts of money that children of color are secluded or restrained at far higher percentages than white children.

Unless we have plans for addressing racial disparities, we are failing at creating useful regulations. Administration groups spoke at this meeting about their need to be able to seclude students in case of suspicion that a student has a weapon or if students need to be interviewed about an altercation. Okay. I get that. But is the suspicion because a student isn’t white? Racism is far too ingrained in our society to believe that it doesn’t play a role in decisions to seclude or restrain students. When this isn’t even a part of the conversation we aren’t serving all of our students.

Review: Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle

Back on January 27th it was Multicultural Children’s Book Day. As one who has been making an effort to diversify my classroom library and promote diverse books more widely for a number of years now, I was quite excited about this day. And then. Then I totally dropped the ball.

Folks interested in participating in the day were able to commit to reviewing a book and one would be sent to them. I signed up immediately! I got a book back in December and was even more excited about it all. Then life got super busy and this totally fell by the side. Which is completely unfair because the book is wonderful.

Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle and illustrated by R. J. Hughes is a beautiful book in a number of different ways. The most obvious can be seen from the cover. The book is visually gorgeous. The colors Hughes uses and the use of light are simply beautiful on every page.

Inside the main story is of a young girl and her family attending Pascha (Easter service in the Orthodox Church). The service begins in the middle of the night so the beginning of the story focuses on her plans to stay awake for it all. She’s our narrator as well, telling the story of the service through the eyes of one who has never seen it before (as she has always, like her younger brother, slept through it in the past). As I was unfamiliar with this celebration in the Orthodox Church, I loved seeing it as she saw it and experiencing it with her for the first time.

If that were the entire book, it would be a lovely book. But that story only scratches the surface. The illustrations for the main story are set in the center of every two-page spread, bordered by words. At the beginning and end those words are dialogue happening around our narrator. Throughout the Pascha service, those words are Biblical and liturgical. They likely are also words she is hearing but they are a part of the service.

Finally, surrounding those center illustrations are more illustrations around the edges of the pages. These are illustrations of various Orthodox churches around the world.

I chose this two-page spread as an example because I believe the Hagia Sophia is the only one of these churches I have visited.

As to being a multicultural book, it is about a religious service that will be new to many and is full of images of churches around the world (a sign of how we are truly connected even as we see so many differences). In addition, during the service one call and response is done in several different languages, quite a surprisingly diverse set in fact. Also, Catherine’s friend, Elizabeth, uses crutches (not as if she had broken a leg, but as a part of her life). The first few times I read the book I did not notice her crutches. She is presented as Catherine’s good friend and anything else is secondary.

I don’t know that this is a book I would have picked up on my own so I am glad MCBD introduced it to me. Our oldest daughter is a Catherine (although not spelled that way) and our youngest shares a name with the author. When the book arrived it felt like it was the right one for me to review. I learned quite a bit from reading this book (not the least of which comes from information the author has included at the end) which is definitely one thing a diverse book should do.

Meeting Brad Meltzer

Way back in September my class had the chance to Skype with Brad Meltzer for Meet the Author (a local thing). Before that we read quite a few of his Ordinary People Change the World biographies. We continued reading more of them after we had the chance to talk with him. He’s quite a popular author in our classroom, not surprisingly.

Last week Brad Meltzer’s newest book came out. As a part of his book tour he was at Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. It’s nearby but not exactly close. The week before his visit I sent home the information with all of my students in both English and Spanish. But I did not expect that any of them would be able to be there. On the day of the book event, one of my students told me that his dad didn’t have to work that night so he was going to be able to go but he said he needed the address again. So I sent the information home with everyone anyway. This boy even asked if he could take our classroom copy of I Am Albert Einstein to get it signed. I promised him I would take it and he could get it signed if he was there (as I was skeptical).

That evening it took my daughters and me an hour to get to Politics and Prose in the rain in rush hour. (I’ve been there quite a few times so I was grateful to know the way. I can’t imagine doing it in the dark and rain for the first time.) The place was packed so it wasn’t until after Brad’s talk that I found my little guy. Not only had his parents brought him but they bought him his own copy of I Am Albert Einstein.


He even dressed up to meet the author!

This made my night. I’m guessing my student won’t forget this, but I think I’ll remember it even more strongly than he will. We waited in line for about half an hour so I told my daughters and my student that they didn’t need to stand with me. They could wander around and read books. My girls both found a spot, grabbed some books, and sat down. This boy, on the other hand, kept running back over to me to show me books we’ve read this year. He’d say, “Look Ms. Orr, they have this book too!” His excitement and enthusiasm was beautiful.

I realized at one point that he’d never been in a bookstore. He told me he couldn’t wait for his parents to bring him back sometime. When I told him I could find bookstores closer to his house he was astounded. I am certain he has been to the public library, but never a bookstore. It was such a joy to watch him. I haven’t enjoyed an author event this much in a long time.

First Try at 3 Act Math

I’ve been wanting to teach math through 3 Act lessons for quite some time but haven’t seen the path or prioritized figuring it out. This weekend, as we prepared to work on area and perimeter I spent some time thinking about how to make it happen.’

So yesterday I told my 3rd graders that I wanted to start a vegetable garden in back yard. I explained that I’m not good at gardening so I need help. I also told them that lots of critters (deer, raccoons, turtles, rabbits) are around back there so I need a fence and I want to mulch my garden to make sure the vegetables have a great growing space. Then I showed them this picture.


I asked them how I could figure out how much fence and mulch I need to buy. They had some great conversations which included a lot of guessing. One girl finally said we needed to measure around the garden to figure out how much fence. So I put up this picture.


I didn’t tell them what to do with that, but gave it to them. Then we continued with the conversation about mulch. They knew mulch comes in a bag (which I didn’t expect them to know) so I showed them this picture.


We noticed this bag will cover 12 square feet. Huh. What’s a square foot? Again, an interesting discussion. I showed a ruler we’ve been using and we talked about it being a foot, so what is a square foot? Another girl told me to get three more rulers and make a square with them. So we did and figured out a square foot. Then we could see a way to measure for mulch so I showed this picture.


Again, I didn’t tell them what to do with it, just gave it to them. Off they went to figure out how much fence and mulch I need. Lots of interesting work happened. After about 15 minutes we came back together and a few students shared what they had done to find the perimeter or the area. They headed off again and after another 10 minutes or so most of my students had figured out both answers.

Today, while I’m home sick, the new intern I’m working with will be taking them through helping her figure out how much carpet and wallpaper border she’ll need in a new (rectangular) apartment. Can’t wait to see how they do!

If you’re interested, here are some documents.


area-and-perimeter-garden-plot (I would give everyone the first page here and make the other pages available if they need them.)

The Kids are Fine

As I mentioned earlier this week, my classroom is now 1 to 1. We’ve used our new laptops for a variety of things this week but one of the challenges for me is sending students to websites easily as typing in URLs is fairly time consuming. For our Expert Project, I have created a google doc with sources students can use for research. But creating docs full of links doesn’t always make sense.

In math this week we’ve used an interactive activity at NCTM‘s Illuminations site. I added this site as a “Useful Link” on our class website, as that URL ( is an easy one for my students to type in and to remember if they want to find this activity again.

We did this yesterday and I know some students went home to try the activity some more. I thought that was a possibility. I did not expect a student to write a blog post. (It’s not really as exciting as that sounds. She doesn’t have a blog, to the best of my knowledge.)

I added a widget to our class blog that allows people to write posts. My goal is for the students to write regularly there. I haven’t introduced this to them yet, however. It didn’t even occur to me that anyone would notice the opportunity. It’s pretty small on the page.


But this girl did. And she clicked. And she created a title for her post, “Hey”. And she wrote a little. And she submitted it to me.


(Ms. A. is the intern working in our classroom right now.)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, this brought me great joy. My students are using our computers to communicate. They did it back in November when we first started using google docs and I left comments on their writing. They responded to the comments. Usually to actually answer a question I had asked or tell me what they had done in their writing because of my comment. But when I was away at a conference one girl (not the same as the one above) used responding to my comment as a way to tell me she hoped I was having a good time.

There’s a lot for me to do as a teacher. But sometimes the most important thing is for me to get out of their way.