Our Classroom Library is Fully Open!

A couple of times this school year I’ve written about our classroom library and having the students organize it. (Before the year began and again as we got rolling.) It took us a very, very long time, almost the first quarter of the year, but we have a fully functioning classroom library now. The kids organized all the books and made all the signs.

I’ve never had a group of kids who were such avid users of our classroom library. These kiddos come in first thing in the morning and take their book boxes to the library to return books and get new ones. They talk about the books they are reading and pass them on to each other when they finish.

These kiddos are also passionate about books. Every book I read aloud gets applause at the end and groans if we have to stop in the middle. They ask me if the authors we’re reading are on twitter and are ready to write immediately if I say yes.

It may have taken us weeks and weeks to get our library finished, but I think it was totally worth it. Here’s a video of it, in case you’re interested in how it looks now.

These pictures show a bigger picture of our library within our classroom.

This last picture is of books I’ve read aloud to my kiddos this year. In previous years this was the go to whenever they had any free time. They’d grab these books and reread them. That happens some this year, but not nearly as often as in the past. Instead, the classroom library is the primary destination.

4 Reasons I Love Flexible Seating

My youngest is a 5th grader this year. The start of the school year was rougher than previous years have been. When I checked in with her one morning recently she was talking far more positively about school. I was surprised and tried to dig a little deeper to see what I was missing. One thing struck me: her teacher had just changed their seats.

My daughter is one of those kids for whom school (typically) works. She is well behaved and does well in the structure of schooling. As a result, I think she is often seated with children for whom that  is not true. I presume this because I can remember doing it to students as a teacher.

For the first six weeks or so of school this year she talked multiple times about her frustration with the kids at her table. When she was no longer sitting with those students that seemed to ease some of her frustrations and challenges at school.

Not long after realizing that, I had a conversation with a colleague in my district who was visiting my classroom for the first time. She remarked on my flexible seating and asked how it was going. As I’ve been doing this for a decade that question was a bit unexpected for me because flexible seating feels normal to me now. However, this colleague works with new teachers in our district so she’s looking at flexible seating through the lens of it being a popular new thing to help teachers try. Her question made me stop and think about how it is going.

As we talked I realized that some of the reasons I like flexible seating are the reasons some teachers are afraid to try it. (I’m not sure that’s really saying what I’m trying to say…)

  1. I believe flexible seating helps students learn self-advocacy. If my daughter had flexible seating in her classroom she could get up and move when students were making it difficult for her to focus and learn. She could advocate for her own learning needs and problem solve for herself.
  2. I believe flexible seating helps students learn self-monitoring. If they are busy chatting with a friend and not able to focus on the task at hand, they can move. Of course, they have to realize they should move, an important skill for them to learn. Giving them control over where they work and learn in the classroom means they have to be thoughtful and responsible about it. (If they aren’t, I do step in. First with a question about whether or not they have found a good place to learn and, if that doesn’t work, with a direction that they need to find a better place for learning.)
  3. I believe flexible seating helps students solve problems independently. I think many teachers are afraid to try flexible seating because they feel like they need to keep certain students away from one another. So they assign them seats. As a result, students don’t even learn to solve that sort of problem. I’ve found kids solve that problem pretty well on their own and I don’t have to step in too terribly often once we’ve identified it and talked about it.
  4. One of the other benefits of flexible seating also solves the problem of space. Every teacher can tell at least one story of frustration with trying to keep some students apart in order to keep distractions down and focus up. It may be that there are just too many students to keep apart or that one or two students can cause distractions no matter where they sit. If students only sat at tables in my room this would be an issue. It would be tough for everyone to find a spot removed from others who will distract them or whom they will distract. But when kids work sitting on our couch, or stools, or beanbags, or just on the floor, we have so many options everyone can find a spot that works for them.

Some examples from this year:

 

Adapting to a New Reality

I’ve spent the majority of my two decades in the classroom working in an inclusion environment. The great majority of the time my students have been in my classroom. They may have received extra support from ESOL or special education teachers but they did so, mostly at least, while in our classroom with their classmates. It’s an atmosphere in which I strongly believe.

This year I’m working in a different situation. Five of my students spend a significant amount of each day in a small group in another classroom. They spend the first 45 minutes of the day with the entire class, having breakfast, watching the morning news show, and for our morning meeting. They join us again an hour later for specials (music, PE, art, etc.), followed by social studies or science, and lunch and recess. Then they are gone to their small group for a couple of hours, to return to wrap up our day. They spend more of their with their classmates than in their small group, but not as much of it with me. That was hard for me to accept at first, even believing that their academic needs will be met far more appropriately and effectively in the small group.

All of us together.

It’s made for an interesting job for me this year in ways that I didn’t anticipate. For a significant portion of my day I am teaching a smaller group than I’ve ever taught. I still have a noticeable range of strengths and needs but with fewer students I can support them more carefully. However, during those parts of the day when I have all of my students I have a wider range of needs than I think I’ve ever had. I have students who are engaging in their learning at a kindergarten level as well as students who are engaging in their learning at a fourth or fifth grade level. I’m offering differentiated options in ways I’ve never done before.

This week I realized something else about this situation. Two of my students, who have been at our school since kindergarten, have missed quite a few days every year. We’re talking somewhere between 10 and 20% of the school days. Both of these students are in the small group portion of my class. One of them missed several days in September but has not missed a single day in October. The other has missed only one day so far this year.

Two months into the school year I can’t be sure how this will play out. However, at the moment it seems like a significant change from previous years. This year is the first year we’ve worked with students in this way, pulling students out for large portions of the day for small group support. I have to wonder if these two students are feeling better about school this year and so are more willing to come each morning. Is it possible that school has, in the past, been so difficult and frustrating that they looked for ways to avoid it? Could they be having more success and, therefore, be feeling more comfortable, secure, and safe at school now?

I’ll be watching as the year continues to see how their attendance goes. Even if they don’t miss another day, however, that won’t tell me if my hypothesis is correct. I am not likely to know the answer to this one. But if their attendance stays strong it will continue to make me feel more comfortable with having them leave my room and most of their classmates for so much of the day.

Good News and Bad News

The good news:

1. We’ve published our first pieces of writing for this year. We read This Is How We Do It and used it as a mentor text. We wrote about ourselves using the structure of that book and illustrated our work. All of this writing is now in a binder in a new basket in our classroom library.

2. It also means we now have this new basket. It looks a bit like this (although this picture is several years old).

We’ve had such a basket in our classroom for many years (as evidenced by these dated pictures – taken, I believe, at my previous school when I taught first graders). It always started off with writing we did together and grew as their own writing gets added.

Having our first published book and a basket in the library for it and future publications is exciting. We’ll have personal narratives to add soon.

3. One of my kiddos had our published book about ourselves in his book box yesterday because he was so excited to read it.

The bad news:

1. I totally bit his head off for having the book in his book box. My expectation is that students read our publications but don’t keep them in their book boxes. My reasoning is that things get put in their book boxes and forgotten and it means no one else can be reading our writing. But I never told them that. I shared the published book. I explained the new basket. We celebrated it. I never said don’t put it in your book box. But I still bit this kid’s head off over it. And didn’t even realize I had done so. Last night it hit me. Ugh.

So, today, during our writing focus lesson I brought the basket up and shared my expectations and my reasoning. And publicly apologized to the boy I’d chastised. I told him it was totally my fault and that I shouldn’t have gotten on him. And I said that in front of the rest of the class. I screwed up and it was on me to own that.

Now I can go back to being excited about our basket that will, eventually, be full of our writing. Sitting there in our library near baskets of books by Kate Messner, Cynthia Rylant, Mo Willems, Rick Riordan, and Jan Thomas. Authors, all of us.

Critical Literacy Thoughts, Part II

Now that I’ve accepted that no text is neutral and all texts are constructed and constructive, thanks to Vivian Vasquez, what’s next? Well, first of all, I think having that understanding is essential before I can move on to more complicated aspects of critical literacy. But before I do, here’s one more example of the above ideas (from our morning at American University with Vivian):

  

As I threw something away in the trash can on the above left, I looked at it more closely. Compare it to this trash can below, found two days later at a theater:

The purpose of the two trash cans is not significantly different. Both have places for trash, recycling, and paper waste. The one at the theater even says ‘waste’ rather than ‘trash’, causing one to consider how wasteful things might be. But the one at American University says ‘Landfill’, which really hit me. Before I threw anything into it, I stopped to consider whether or not what I was putting there truly belonged in a landfill. Was I sure it couldn’t be recycled? Was I certain that was the correct bin for my waste?

It was fascinating to notice that trash cans can be constructed and constructive.

Back to the discussion with a bunch of literacy leaders and Vivian…

One of the questions asked that led to quite a discussion, was “What about when teachers say students lack background knowledge? How can we handle that and address it?”

As I’ve spent twenty years working with children who are living in financially challenging situations and who often are English language learners, I’ve heard this statement about my students time and time again. I’ve rarely responded well, I’m sure.

Vivian’s response included the idea that ‘when you marginalize one, you privilege another’. This is always true. If we’re assuming some students don’t have background knowledge, we’re assuming other students, different students, have tons of it. Really what we’re saying is that some students lack the background knowledge we expect them to have and want them to have. Because no one lacks background knowledge. No one lacks experiences. Those experiences simply may be different from your own. Which doesn’t make them less than your own. When we hear this statement from other educators or from non-educators, we need to be prepared to push back, to ask what is meant by that statement.

This matters because background knowledge impacts learning. If teachers believe that students lack background knowledge they will have lower expectations for those students. That is unacceptable.

Vivian followed up on this idea by saying, “Unless you name what you are doing, it is very hard to check it.”

We know this as teachers because if students are unable to name what they are doing, they likely don’t have a deep understanding and will be unable to transfer that knowledge, use it the future, or ensure they are using it well. We need to know this as teachers for ourselves as well.

We need to name the things we are doing as teachers because that is the only way to be sure that the things we are doing are the right things. That they fit with our core beliefs about children, learning, and teaching. If we don’t look with a critical eye at our own decisions and actions we will continue to do things simply because we always have.

I guess what I’m thinking is that critical literacy is like so many other literacies, it goes far beyond texts. Texts may be a place to begin our understanding (both for ourselves and for our students) but using those literacy skills will not be limited to texts. Those skills will be useful for any sort of medium and even for our own actions.

Critical Literacy Thoughts, Part I

A little over a week ago I had the lucky chance to be a part of a group of educators from my district spending the morning with Vivian Vasquez. My district has added critically literacy units to our reading curriculum in first through sixth grades. The morning with Vivian was designed to help these literacy leaders better understand critical literacy and think about how to help the teachers in their buildings do the same. (I am not one of the literacy leaders in a building. I just got to tag along for the day. I do hope to bring my learning back to my own building in collaboration with our phenomenal literacy leaders.)

Image result for vivian vasquez book

One of the things that Vivian says regularly, and probably has been doing for years, is “no text is ever neutral”. Those five words are pretty powerful. No text is ever neutral. 

To really pause and reflect on that statement caused me to realize I don’t believe anything is truly neutral. When I think of countries who did not get involved in wars, citing their own neutrality, I realize that not taking a stand actually takes a stand. Countries who chose not to engage against Nazi Germany made a very specific statement in doing so. And it wasn’t really a statement of neutrality.

Switzerland is known for its neutrality (something that is long-standing as it was established in the Treaty of Paris in 1815). However Swiss banking laws have done much to protect illegal actions and the prosperity they have brought to criminals around the world. Something that definitely does not seem neutral.

We see news organizations attempting neutrality by offering equal time to both sides of an issue. Something that appears reasonable, but often means populations who have faced discrimination and violence are left with less of a voice. And privileged voices are given microphones when they should not be. It is not neutral to suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement should be covered equally with those whose argument that all lives matter makes it quite clear that Black lives matter far less. It is not neutral to give equal time to accused sex offenders as to the allegations being made by victims. The narrative is shaped by who is telling the story.

No text is ever neutral.

Vivian also discussed the idea that all texts are constructed and constructive. This one required a little bit of time for me to consider. The idea that all texts are constructed was easy for me. Of course they are. Even if the way we are constructing them is in striving for neutrality we make choices with every word, every phrase, every paragraph. The specific verbs we choose are very telling. We write to communicate and we want to communicate in certain ways. We may want to persuade others. We may want the reader to feel a certain way: hopeful, pitying, outraged. We may want to inform, but even then we are making choices about what we include and how we include it. We construct texts.

The idea that all texts are constructive was what took me a little longer. But I remembered the lesson we did at Columbus Day. I was so frustrated to find that poem about Columbus on the copier because I knew it would be constructive. I knew the students in whatever classroom read that poem would be constructing their understanding of Columbus, of our country’s history, of history in general, from that poem. When we read texts they are constructing us, our thinking, and our understanding. There is nothing wrong with that, in general, but it is something of which to be aware. When we read without acknowledging that texts are part of what constructs us, we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated by what we read. When I read fiction I am willing to give in to that manipulation, to allow the writer to take me along a path and lead me through various emotions. Even then, however, I try to remain aware of how the text is causing me to think about many different things that arise as I read.

Critical literacy is not an isolated skill. It needs to be something students (and adults) bring to everything they encounter. We need to recognize biases, stereotypes, and the ways authors are positioning us. We need to question those things. This feels far more critical now than ever before.

Third Grade, Friday, Recess

Picking students up from lunch, one of my teammates noted one of my students crying. She did so because one of her students said:

I spy…

a kid crying.

Do you want to play I Spy?

My teammate considered the offer and decided she couldn’t handle a game of identifying children in some sort of trauma or another so she passed.

She shared this with me at recess but we were interrupted by a girl running over to complain that a classmate had used a bad word. Said classmate followed quickly, defending himself against these allegations. He said:

I didn’t say that! I just said slowpoke!…

No, I didn’t. I said the F word.

It was like we could watch his face as he worked on a believable lie and then realized it was totally not believable and he had no better option. So he just owned up.

While we tried to recover from that one, several girls ran up, full of excitement. They began talking all at once, but we managed to pull out the big idea…

We found a dead rat out in the field! And it’s decomposing!

This time I could see the emotions on my teammate’s face. She was horrified by the idea of a dead rat. But thrilled to hear them use the word decomposing as it’s one we’ve been discussing in science. She handled the situation beautifully, suggesting that they observe the decomposition from a great distance and congratulating them on their use of that word.

Epilogue:

It turns out one of the students from another class had kicked the dead rat and it hit the shoe of a student. The other teacher involved had their student write an apology note to the student with the tainted shoe. I have to wonder exactly what that note said…

“I’m sorry I got dead rat on your shoe.”
“I’m sorry I tried to play soccer with a dead rat.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t just watch the decomposition but had to help it along.”

My job, it is never dull.

A Day

Today was a day. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the day was fully established by 7:30 am. By that hour, what today was going to be was set, couldn’t be changed. More than twelve hours later and all it’s been is more than twelve hours of that day.

It started rough because I had trouble sleeping last night. As a result, I didn’t go to the gym this morning and I got up exhausted. So I started my day super cranky (as my family will attest). The crankiness was partly due to being tired and partly due to being overwhelmed with the things I need/want to do. (I know I need to say no to things. I realized today that the things I want to say no to are required for my job or my family and saying no to them would either get me in serious trouble or make things a lot harder for someone else. The other stuff is what I want to do. Some of which is about my job and family, of course.)

I left for school earlier than I have all year because I was out on Friday and had a lot to do to prep for the week. Fortunately, my room was not a disaster. There were a few minor messes as a result of my absence, but nothing huge. That was a nice upswing for the morning.

I began the regular routine of turning on lights (slightly more complicated than typical because I have floor lights rather than use the overhead ones so I have a power strip in each corner to switch on) and emptying the dehumidifier that is still filling up every 24 hours. On the morning’s to do list was to change the water for our class fish. I did it just as I’ve done every two weeks since we got him a year ago. But today didn’t go as normal.

As I was just about to transfer the fish from his tank to the little bowl he stays in while I clean his home, he jumped out of the tank and into the sink. As he flopped around I tried to grab him (not a task that thrilled me) in order to return him to the water. Not surprisingly he was slippery and squirmy and I was not doing well. Then, I swear, he leaped up and took a nose dive down the drain.

The left bottom slot. He just dove straight down. I did not handle the situation well. In fact, I screamed obscenities in my empty classroom (and, luckily, almost completely empty school). Then I cried. Being only 7:10 am, this wasn’t a good start for the day.

Of course, one of my coping strategies is to post things on social media.

Which resulted in a friend sending me a text with this link, suggesting that #9 might make me feel better.

It did make me laugh. Which was much needed.

Anyway, it was a day. And the to do list isn’t much shorter (if at all) and the fish is still gone and I’m still cranky and it may only be 8:30 pm but it is time for me to call it and just get some sleep.

Teaching Holidays Can Be Tough

Last Friday I discovered a page left on the copier that frustrated me greatly. It was a copy of the classic poem about Christopher Columbus. I tend to forget that not everyone has been challenged to question what they learned in school. Still, it pains me to think that we’re passing down this idolized version of Columbus to more children. So I whined on social media. One friend responded, jokingly I think, that maybe a teacher was doing a critical literacy lesson with this text.

Luckily, that prompted me to do such a lesson. My 3rd graders and I read the poem together and discussed what we learned about Columbus from it. Then I read them Jane Yolen’s Encounter and we discussed what we learned about Columbus from that text. After each text we brainstormed words we would use to describe Columbus based on our reading. They noticed that the first text generated lots of positive words and ideas and the second text did the exact opposite. Finally, we talked about why we thought the two texts were so different.

Discussing what we learned from each text and what words we would use to describe Columbus based on the reading went pretty well. They had a lot of ideas. Talking about why the two texts gave us such different information, ideas, and impressions was more challenging.

We wrapped up by writing to one of two prompts (or both, as some of them requested):

  • Was Christopher Columbus a hero? Why or why not?
  • Should we or should we not celebrate Columbus Day? Why?

A few students believe we should and that he is a hero. They cite his bravery in sailing so far to somewhere brand new.

Most disagreed. They wrote about how many Indians died after his arrival. They wrote about how he didn’t discover the land. They wrote about Indians being forced into slavery. They wrote about his greediness as evidenced by his desire for the Indians’ gold.

I did the lesson far too quickly. The constraints of our ladybug unit (those constraints being actual living ladybugs who have no interest in waiting on me to teach at whatever pace I desire) made me feel that we could only spend one day on this lesson. That was an error. We could have, and should have, dug much deeper in our thinking. I console myself with the fact that there are plenty of other holidays for us to look at critically throughout the year.

Just as an aside, this was my favorite part of any of my students’ writing. Mostly because she made it a hashtag and included a smiley face. My kids crack me up.

Do the Work Before the Need for the Band Aid

Is it just me or is everyone talking about ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) these days? The huge study that has driven so much of our understanding about ACEs ended 20 years ago. But it seems like many people are just discovering this. That surprises me, but I’m all for folks understanding how these experiences impact students.

Just for the record, there are 10 identified ACEs (again, from that original CDC-Kaiser study done from 1955-1977). They are:

  • emotional abuse
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • mother treated violently (I think we’re broadening this one, necessarily so)
  • substance abuse in the household
  • mental illness in the household
  • separation or divorce of parents
  • household member incarcerated
  • emotional neglect
  • physical neglect

ACEs impact people’s behavior, health, life expectancy, and economics. As a result, lots of people are discussing how best to help children and adults who have dealt with multiple ACEs. Even Sesame Street is jumping in. There’s a lot of good work happening around supporting people coping with these experiences. That’s definitely a good thing.

from George Wesley and Bonita Dannells’ flickr

I’m feeling frustrated however, because I’d like to see more discussion about how to limit these experiences, rather than cope with them afterward. I will accept that we can not completely abolish these experiences. But we could do a lot more, as a society, about minimizing them.

The three forms of abuse, two forms of neglect, and violent treatment of a family member make up more than half of the ACEs identified. We need to work harder to ensure that children and adults are not being abused or neglected. We need to make certain that children are being cared for. We need to make abuse and neglect less shameful so that it is something we can discuss and address.

Substance abuse and mental health also need to be seen without the shame they carry now and need to be covered by insurance. Far too often both of these issues are non-starters with health insurance or are so minimally covered as to be pointless.

As to incarceration, I’m tired just thinking about this issue. Children of color are wildly disproportionately impacted by this ACE because of the structural racism in our judicial system. Of course, not only are children of color losing out because of this but so are women of color who are raising children alone and men of color who are spending years of their lives in prison for infractions that would earn a white man a slap on the hand. This may only be one of the 10 ACEs, but its significant as an issue in our society goes far beyond that.

The only ACE that doesn’t worry me so much is separation/divorce. I know of instances in which parents divorcing in the best possible thing for the children and other times when, mostly because of the behavior of the parents, it is awful for the children. So this one seems more complex to me.

The other nine, not so complicated. We need to help children who are coping with these traumas. No question. But we also need to work much harder to make sure fewer children are enduring them.