Words Send Messages

This morning, as I neared the end of the first mile of the run in a sprint triathlon, I overheard a conversation that nearly made me stop running to address it. This particular sprint triathlon is the most community focused and supported that I’ve ever seen. During the bike piece of the race families sit out in their driveways and cheer everyone who comes along. Near the start of the run there were many chalked words of encouragement on the path (including two that stuck with me: “My running form could best be described as drunk woman running away from no one,” and “Stay calm and try not to die.”). It’s a race that is full of spectators encouraging the athletes along the way.

So I was not surprised to find a young boy, about 5, his older sister, his dad, and his grandparents along the side of the path, likely waiting for his mom to run by. He was holding a stick and, between runners, threw it across the path. It didn’t quite make it to the grass on the other side and his sister asked, “What kind of a throw was that?” His grandfather then said, “That was a girl throw. I thought you were a pitcher.”

I truly did nearly stop. I wanted to ask this grandfather why he was suggesting to this young boy that girls are not capable athletes. Why he needed to make doing something the way a girl would do it an insult to his grandson. Especially with his granddaughter standing right there. Especially with a large number of women of all ages running past in a triathlon.

The words we use with children are powerful. Every single word. We often think they aren’t listening but they are. And they are processing and taking in what we are saying. They are getting the underlying messages that we, clearly, aren’t considering.

I tend to be hyper aware of what I say to children and hyper aware of my tone, facial expressions, and body language. Which is not to say that I get it right all the time, or even a great majority of the time. But I try to think about what the child is actually going to take away from what I am saying. I know that, far too often, the message can be quite different from what I’m trying to say if I’m not careful.

Messages about gender and race and religion and languages are especially powerful. Children are trying to make sense of the world around them and they turn to us for help. The problem is, we often help when we don’t realize we are doing so. If we aren’t conscious, or attempting to be conscious, of what we are saying, we are highly likely to reinforce societal ills and problems rather than help our children look carefully at the world around them.

Image result for choice words

One of my all time favorite professional books, if not my absolute favorite, is Peter Johnston’s Choice Words. It, and his follow up, Opening Minds, are the books I give to interns with whom I work. I try to reread them every couple of years. Johnston takes a careful look at what we say to students and what they actually hear in our words. His two books are quick but powerful reads.

As I head into our first day of school together, with my new group of third graders, I’ll be hearing that grandfather in my head as a reminder to be thoughtful about the messages I send.

OUR Children

One area of our classroom ready for students to arrive on Monday.

This past week has been the first week back for teachers in my district and kiddos start on Monday. I’m in a situation this year that is new for me. That’s a bit surprising as this is year twenty so how much can possibly be new at this point? Anyway, I’ve always been in schools that designated some classes as special education classes, meaning those classrooms had the students with IEPs (individualized education plans). This is done to help the special education teachers, so that they can work closely with fewer teachers and fewer classrooms. This year I’m one of those teachers but several of my students need more specialized help than I am accustomed to and will spend a large part of their day in another classroom with a special education teacher and an instructional assistant. They’ll be there for language arts and math and with us for specials (PE, music, art, etc.), lunch, recess, morning meeting, science, and social studies.

I’m mostly okay with this. I know some of these students already (I taught some in kindergarten and worked with another last year during my planning time) and I know they need more than they are likely to receive in a general education classroom. At the same time, I love these kiddos and I’m sad that I’ll see them so little.

As I was getting things ready in my classroom this week I was thinking about where kids could keep their book boxes. I like having them in spaces all around the room but I was struggling to find good spots for all of them. Then I realized a few kids won’t be with me for language arts so I wondered if I should have book boxes for them. I had been planning on it but, having never been in a situation in which kids are in my class so little, I wasn’t certain. I checked in with the head of our special education department and she said that yes, I should have book boxes for them as there will always be odd moments in the day when we’ll turn to them. That fit my thinking.

The part that surprised me was that as I left her office she thanked me for including these kiddos. My kiddos. Our kiddos.

Throughout my twenty years in the classroom I’ve certainly heard teachers talk about ‘your kids’ or ‘her kids’ rather than ‘my kids’ or ‘our kids’. It’s always grated on me. I’m a firm believer in the idea that it takes a village (and being a parent has only reinforced that). Our kids, all of them at our school, are ours. We all need to care for them, support them, teach them, listen to them. It doesn’t matter whose classroom they are in during the day or what labels they have, we all belong to each other.

 

Working on More Them, Less Me

Our classroom library before the kids arrived last year. 

Many years ago (it pains me too much to count how many) a fabulous reading teacher friend of mine gently suggested that I should allow the students to set up our classroom library. I taught fourth graders at the time and I couldn’t imagine how that would work. My friend, being far wiser than I, kept gently pushing me about it and talking with me about how it could be done. I still couldn’t make the leap.

Around that same time I was one of several teachers working with an intern (student teacher) in the spring. The three of us were, therefore, out of our classrooms for four weeks. During that time we always took on various tasks around the school, sometimes working with students, sometimes accomplishing other jobs. In this instance, we were tasked with reorganizing our book room. My reading teacher friend and a colleague had secured funding over several years and greatly expanded the resources available to us. We were fairly bursting at the seams and needed to take stock.

The two other teachers and I spent quite a while looking over all we had in the book room, debating how best to organize it for teachers to find what they need, and making it happen. By the end of the process I realized I would be a far more effective user of the book room because I had such a deep knowledge of what was there.

That was a real smack in the head. Needless to say, the next fall I had my students set up our classroom library. (I may be slow but I can learn.)

Not only did this process involve some really wonderful, thoughtful conversations about books, but it also meant my students had touched and looked at a significant portion of our library in the first weeks. They had a far better idea of what all was available to them and were excited to read a wider range of books. It was wonderful.

In my years in K and 1st I didn’t do this. Instead, I organized the library and then the students looked at each basket of books and gave it its label. That’s what I did last year in 3rd as well. This year I’m going back to my belief and having the students set up the library. I’ve got baskets of books ready for them to pick from for independent reading in the first few days. Each basket is full of a wide collection of books. After a few days of reading and exploring the books we’ll start talking.

We’ll talk about what books or kinds of books we like to read.
We’ll talk about how we find books we want to read when we go to the school library.
We’ll talk about the kinds of baskets they would like to find in our classroom library.
We’ll talk about what makes books similar.
We’ll talk about how to figure out what kind of book one is holding if one hasn’t actually read it.

Those conversations will (hopefully) help us as we begin sorting books in ways that make sense to us. We’ll see how it goes.

If you have any advice or suggestions about this, I’d love to hear them because it’s been a long time since I’ve done this with a class!

If You Have a Platform, Use It

Today was the first official day back for the great majority of teachers in my huge district (we’re closing in on 200,000 students so we have a lot of teachers). My pyramid (one high school, one middle school, and all the elementary schools that feed to them) kicked things off by bringing us all together first thing this morning. I have many issues with that, but I’ll hold off on those. Our morning started with a video of kids from all our schools talking about what makes a good teacher and how they know when they are successful. That was pretty awesome. After a brief intro by one principal (mine, but I’m not bragging) we had an hour and a half keynote.

The guy was good. He was funny and inspirational and had actually been a classroom teacher for 31 years. In fact, two of his former students who live in the area, one who works at the Pentagon and one who is a lawyer, took time off from work to be at his talk this morning. I have no doubt he was a phenomenal teacher.

He clearly inspired many teachers in the audience. I watched people near me make notes or copy down things he put up on the screen. I listened to the small sounds of agreement, validation, and awe. There were many teachers who were clearly getting from this keynote exactly what the presenter and our pyramid leaders had hoped.

Other teachers were disengaged. Some may have been distracted by all they have to do to prepare for the first day with kiddos in a week. Some may have just been tired after getting up early for the first time in a long time. Some may have been jaded and not able to hear what the man was saying.

I was not like any of the above teachers. I will admit that I did walk in with a small chip on my shoulder because I was frustrated that in a pyramid as widely diverse as ours (demographics below) we were listening to a white man. For the second year in a row. But I was open to the idea that he would be worth our time. In many ways he was. He said so many of the right things, at least in my mind. But.

Students at our high school, from their instagram.

The things he didn’t say screamed at me. He said nothing about the structural racism that is harming so many of our students. I didn’t expect him to go that far, but a mention of implicit bias and the need for teachers to have awareness of it, would have been nice. There was nothing in the entire hour and a half that suggested cultural competency. (It didn’t help that the pictures of his students were all, or almost all, white.)

If you are going to speak to teachers and racism or bias don’t come up at all, your message is sorely lacking. You have a platform, a voice, an opportunity to help move teachers forward and improve the lives of children of color. Use it.

 

Demographics of our high school:

Latinx students: 43%
Asian students: 24%
White students: 16%
Black students: 13%
Other: 4%

58% received free or reduced price lunches

 

Just to add to the irony or frustration, the high school in which we sat this morning is Robert E. Lee High School.

The keynoter shared his email address with us. I think he’ll be getting an email from me sharing my thoughts on this. Politely, of course.

 

Lived Experiences

I went for a bike ride this morning and had lots of time to think. (I have to ride on roads as there is no bike path I can bike to and I refuse to wear earphones because I want all senses helping me identify other vehicles.) One vehicle put forth extra effort to be patient with me and give me space. When I felt safe enough and waved it by I found it was a dad and son in full riding gear with bikes on the back. Of course. That driver knew my experience and had empathy for what I needed. A bit later, on the scariest bit of my ride, where the street is narrowest and cars are going by at 40 miles per hour, some cars went way into the oncoming lane to give me space, others crowded and scared me (no cars were coming the other way at this time). I figure those giving me space are either bike riders themselves or have someone they know well who rides and so they get it. The drivers too close simply don’t. They haven’t lived it.

Not me, but it looks quite familiar. From Seth Werkheiser’s flickr.

Two years ago I got a new Prius. I can unlock the driver’s door by putting my hand in the door handle (assuming I have the key with me). My husband pointed out that I could change that so it unlocked all four doors at once rather than having to open my door and click the unlock button. This made sense to him as I often have our daughters with me or we’ll all going in that car. However, as a woman, that’s not what I want. I’d rather have to take the extra time to unlock the doors for others as needed rather than have all the doors unlocked when I’m alone. My 6’2″ husband had never considered that perspective. He hasn’t lived the experience of being a woman, of having men I don’t know make sexual comments to me, of being raped. I’ll take safety over inconvenience.

When one lacks lived experience it requires work to understand another’s perspective. We can never fully get it as we are all formed by our own experiences. But we can make a concerted effort. I have never lived life as a person of color. I’ve never been Black or indigenous or Latinx or Asian or Indian. My entire life experience has been as a white woman. I’ve never had to learn the language of the country in which I live. I’ve never been LGTBQ. I’ve never tried to navigate the world with a disability. I have not lived those experiences and I do not understand what it means to do so.

I recognize that fact. I know that when people speak or act their life experiences are a part of what drives them. When I judge their words and actions solely based on my life experiences I am wrong. My lens is only one lens. I need more.

We are lucky to live in a time in which access to other perspectives and understandings is easy. Even if you are surrounded by people who look, sound, and act like you, as many of us are, you can find a wider world than that without much work. I will never be anything but what I am, but I will read and listen widely to others. I will search out people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, people with experiences that are different from mine to try and understand our world a little better.

My reactions to Charlottesville and Boston, my reactions to taking down Confederate monuments, my reactions to white supremacists and Nazis are born from my life experiences. I am lucky that my life experiences now include so many people who are willing to share their reactions and help me understand my own. Our world is widely diverse, far more so than I can put into words, and while I can not truly understand what that means for so many there is no reason not to try.

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.

V/ASCD Love

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.