Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers

In the next couple of days we will receive our ladybug larvae. Over the coming weeks we’ll watch those larvae become pupa and then adult ladybugs. It’s always a fun experience (if a bit stressful for me as I don’t like to be responsible for ensuring living things continue living). In preparation we’ve been exploring some things about ladybugs, including the physical and behavioral adaptations that help them survive.

This was perfect because it let me bring in another book I wanted to read for our Mock Orbis Award exploration. The book is Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Stephanie Laberis.

It starts off with two tiny little animals and continues throughout looking at many animals that were completely new to me. There are familiar names (koala, armadillo, tortoise) but there are also okapi, Etruscan pygmy shrews, hoatzins, and zorillas. (Those last two are uncommon enough that my browser is convinced I misspelled them. I did not.)

The illustrations are whimsical, as you can see from the cover, and they match well with the writing style in this book. Melissa Stewart is such a skilled writer. She has authored titles for several nonfiction series that I know and love: Which Animal is Which? series, National Geographic Kids, and A True Book series. I didn’t even realize how many of her books I owned until I did a little research after reading this one.

The pages don’t have a lot of text on them, just a sentence or few on each one. It’s perfect. There’s enough there to give you some good, interesting, and fun information and to spark some great conversations. The very end of the book has just a little more about each of the animals, for those readers who aren’t ready to quit.

It was also perfect as a match to our work in science this week. Thinking about the physical and behavioral adaptations of all of these animals deepened my students’ understanding of those ideas. And they were having such fun with the book they likely didn’t even notice!

Punishing Women

A few days ago I wrote a post titled, Men, Shut Up. Now, just three days later, I can’t recall what exactly pushed me to write that. So many things have happened since then that have infuriated me and made me lost whatever had been the last straw then. So. Many. Straws.

The morning after I wrote that post I heard this piece on NPR on my way to school. This was the introduction:

The Trump administration is revamping rules on how colleges handle sexual misconduct cases. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says she’s correcting a system that’s stacked against the accused.

My inability to conceive of a ‘system that’s stacked against the accused’ is complete. I can’t even begin to picture it. It is so far from anything that has ever been known in our society (and most others) that it is simply unbelievable. The number of people who have committed “sexual misconduct” (and that’s a broad term) and walked away with no consequences is exponentially higher than the number who have actually had any sort of punishment or cost to their actions.

NPR reporter Tovia Smith interviewed Cynthia Garrett, co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality for this piece. As angry as it makes me to hear men dismiss sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and rape, hearing a woman do it is even harder for me.

And here’s the point in the piece that nearly made me get in an accident or in some way wreck my car:

These are kids. I mean, they’re just learning how to negotiate the social world on campus. And they make mistakes. And I think this helps bring it down to reality. You know, let’s not be so easily offended.

From Cynthia Garrett

Those mistakes impact another person’s life for years to come. Quite possibly forever. And we’re upset that the person making those ‘mistakes’ might lose a semester of college or have to go to a different school?

Is it possible that under the Obama Department of Education rules we might see more men being punished and some men being punished when they did not do what is claimed? Certainly. I recognize that. We’re a country in which the death penalty is legal in many states and we know for a fact that we have executed people who were innocent. We’re okay with that but we’re not okay with this? It seems like the death penalty is a tad bit more of an issue if we know people are sometimes wrongly accused and found guilty.

I should also note that I am willing to accept some men being punished wrongly if it means we are punishing more men rightly. It sucks. Yes. It would be wonderful if we could figure out how to ensure we are only punishing people rightly. That would be ideal.

Instead, we’ve accepted that many, many men will get away with ‘sexual misconduct’ because we fear punishing even one wrongly. So many, many women are violated, traumatized, and permanently harmed because we can’t risk punishing any innocent man. We seem to be quite happy to punish women to avoid punishing men.


(I do realize that women can also be guilty of sexual misconduct of all sorts and that men are also victims of it. I’ve used genders in this way because it is the far more common occurrence.)

Reflecting on the Social

Almost five years ago Glennon Doyle wrote a post that has stuck with me all this time. Lots of her writing hits me hard and changes me, but this post haunted me a bit. I couldn’t figure out how to do what I wanted with what I learned from it.

Every Friday afternoon Chase’s teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.

And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase’s teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.

I read this and thought it was unbelievably brilliant. Simple, easy to do as a teacher, and so powerful. The problem, for me, is that my classroom has flexible seating so asking kids whom they’d like to sit with would seem odd to them. So I’ve struggled with this for five years. (That sounds absurd now that I’m putting it in black and white. Sigh.)

This year I’m trying something. Finally. I’ve created a set of prompts to help my kiddos to reflect on their relationships with their classmates. The prompts are:

  • In the past two weeks I have been glad to sit beside _______________ at lunch because…
  • In the past two weeks I have had fun playing at recess with ____________ because…
  • In the past two weeks ____________ has helped me learn in class by…
  • In the past two weeks I have had trouble doing my best when I work with _____________ because…
  • In the next two weeks I hope I get to work or play with _________________ because…

I don’t know that we will do this every two weeks throughout the year. I think that would be ideal for me, but we’ll see how it goes. They did it for the first time last week and I am learning a lot about their relationships and interactions. Their ‘because’ parts are pretty slim at the moment, but that doesn’t surprise me at the start of third grade. That’ll grow.

I don’t know if these prompts will really get at what I’m trying to learn from them. If needed, I’ll revise them as the year goes on. For the moment, I’m happy that I’m finally trying to get at what Glennon wrote about five years ago:

Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down- right away- who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.

That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t want to miss these social development growths or snags any more than I would want to miss the academic ones.

Men, Shut Up

If you are a man and you are questioning Dr. Ford and her accusations against Kavanaugh, just stop. Stop. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

I don’t care how good a person you are. I don’t care if you consider yourself a feminist. I don’t care how many women will say how amazing and wonderful you are. I don’t care that you have a mother, or wife, or daughter, or sister who will vouch for you. None of that matters.

You have not lived the experience of being a woman in this society. You can not, in any way, understand the realities women face, especially when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. You are looking through a window at this, possibly a very smudged, unclear window. You are not actually there. You can’t be.

When women tell you that something is harassment or sexism, your role is to listen. To hear what they are saying. To consider it and try to place it into the context of their lived experience. Not your lived experience, as that is a very different thing.

Your job is not…

  • to argue with them that what they are saying is not harassment or sexism
  • to explain to them how it is not a big deal
  • to try and connect with them about some challenge you have faced that seems similar
  • to share how other women have had that happen and not said it was harassment or sexism

If you are questioning Dr. Ford and the accusations she is making in any way it is time to take a step back, a deep breath, and a close look in the mirror. Time to question yourself as to why you feel this way. Time to ask yourself what makes you think you know better than she what happened.


(It is also worth noting that all of the above should be said about white people questioning people of color when they say they have faced harassment or racism. We white folks can not know their lived experiences any more than men can know women’s. So we should shut up and listen and look at ourselves in the same way here. And this deserves far more than an aside at the end. I apologize for that.)

Book of Bones

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about reading books to myself, out loud, and to a group of kiddos and how different each of those experiences is. That idea was hammered home this past week when I read Book of Bones: 10 Record-Breaking Animals by Gabrielle Balkan and illustrated by Sam Brewster. I had gotten it because it seemed like a good title for us to read as we looked for books for our Mock Orbis Pictus Award fun.

When I read the book to myself it was fine. I learned some interesting facts but definitely wouldn’t have put it near the top of my mock award list.

It took a couple of days to read it aloud. There’s a lot in this book. The students loved the chance to guess what animal sets each of the ten records in the book (lightest bone, heaviest bone, fewest bones, etc.). When I would turn the page they were either shocked or cheering – mostly cheering.

There were lots of gasps as I read facts about these animals. One of the reasons it took so long to read was because there was so much they wanted to discuss and ask throughout the book.

At first glance the illustrations seem functional but in reality they are astounding. The skeletons are detailed in just the right amount. Details that draw in the reader but don’t overwhelm. The pictures of the animals have the skeletons showing, if the book is at the right angle.

After reading this book aloud I love it. The kids’ reactions and the slower, careful reading we did together allowed me to see the book more clearly. And to greatly enjoy it.

(Participating in the Mock Orbis Pictus Award with NCTE is helping me share more nonfiction with my students, an ongoing goal of mine.)

Continuing our Classroom Library Set Up

Ten days ago I wrote about the work we are doing with our classroom library. It’s moving along. Slowly, but it is moving along.

The classroom library is still covered but we have sorted all of the books we unpacked from the boxes into baskets. Currently those baskets are labeled with post-it notes as we know we might want to revise baskets as we discover new books. Once we’re fully sorted we’ll make more permanent labels (and by we, I mean the kiddos).

Many of the fiction baskets we’ve set up so far, in the largest area of our classroom library. (Although the Fly Guy basket has both fiction and nonfiction in it.)

Some of the nonfiction baskets we’ve set up now. This bookcase is at the end of the main section of our classroom library, right beside our couch.

More nonfiction baskets. This bookcase is near our class carpet gathering space. To the right are the displays of the books I’ve read aloud.

More of our fiction baskets. This bookcase stands alone near our cubbies and sink. We’ve got books everywhere!

After a few days of looking through tubs full of random books for the one specifically desired or even for one that looked appealing, the kiddos were definitely ready for a discussion of how best to organize our books. They immediately identified some baskets they thought would be useful: Piggie and Elephant, Magic School Bus, Fly Guy, Robert Munsch, and True or False books.

So far the fiction books we have out are pretty easily organized by author or series. The nonfiction was a little more challenging. Some kids sorted books by series like the fiction. So we had Smart Kids books together, I Wonder Why books together, and so on. Others decided to organize books by topic, putting insect books together and ocean animals books together. I took the books and kept them in the groups the kids had chosen.

The next day I posed two questions. The first one was specific to Fly Guy at the time, but could impact future planning. There had been some debate about whether or not the fiction and nonfiction Fly Guy books should be together. So we discussed whether or not fiction and nonfiction can be in a basket together. They decided no, that shouldn’t happen, except in the case of Fly Guy. Those they wanted together. I’ll be curious to see if this comes up again and, if so, how they feel about it then.

The next question was broader. In nonfiction, should we sort by topic or by series? We looked at the baskets we had already made with nonfiction books. We had several sorted by series: True or False books, Basher Science books, Brad Meltzer’s biographies, and the Take-Along Guides books. We also had some by topic, including magnets and outer space. After some discussion the decision was reached that, most of the time at least, we want the nonfiction books to be sorted by topic. This included some wonderful discussion about what would be most helpful to us when it comes to finding books we want to read.

We laid out our nonfiction books and sorted them. We ended up with some great baskets, I think, and had some really interesting discussions about different kinds of animals. Tomorrow I’ll pull out more books and we’ll see how this experience has helped us sort books we haven’t spent as much time enjoying…

Building Shapes and Community

For the past few years I’ve started off our math time with the Week of Inspirational Math from Jo Boaler and her YouCubed team at Stanford. We always spend more than a week on the activities because they are so fabulous and the kids are having a blast. This morning we tried the Building Shapes activity.

In small groups students take a long piece of rope that is tied to make one big loop. They use the rope to make the shapes above. The rectangle and the square are where they usually start and I make them work to prove to me that they’ve created the shape they say they’ve made.

This morning my kiddos worked on this far longer than I had anticipated. They talked and listened to each other. They gently helped each other when someone was struggling. They got frustrated and worked through it. I was impressed.

The star was the next shape the groups tackled (by their choice). One group got frustrated and decided to try one of the pyramids instead. The other two groups kept going. They had five or six kiddos so they had enough hands for all the vertices but they were still having a rough time. Then one group came up with an idea I had not seen before.

They put the rope on the floor, created their star, and then made sure everyone had a hand on it. Brilliant. As soon as one group was sitting on the ground the other group realized what was happening and did it as well. They made some nice looking stars!

In the Fog

In July I drove up in the Shenandoah Mountains and found myself in the thickest fog I have ever had to navigate. As I wound my way down the mountain the fog shifted and was thicker at times than others. Sometimes I felt as though I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. At other times it seemed like a typical view. At multiple points I found myself in clearer air thinking, “I didn’t realize how bad that fog was.” It hadn’t seem so thick and blinding until I was no longer in it. The sheer density of it wasn’t clear while I was in the midst.

Looking out at the mountain before leaving.

Is this what it means to be white? Do we think things are clear because we haven’t seen anything else? Do we live in a fog and not realize it?

I think so. And I think every time we feel it’s become clear we are wrong. We feel as though we’ve come out of the fog and we don’t realize how much fog is still there. We may have come to understand something we hadn’t understood before and so we think we understand everything.

We have a lot of fog to navigate. We need to keep pushing, learning, and questioning ourselves to clear it some. And then keep on working.

Learning from Fencing Coaches

Our youngest daughter has been taking fencing for nearly a year now. (She also takes archery. My husband claims we’re raising a 19th century gentleman. Our daughter’s explanation is that the heroes in her books, many by Tamora Pierce, fence and are archers. So…)

from West Point – The U.S. Military Academy’s flickr

As I have sat through many of her hour long classes I have noticed her coaches doing some things I think I, as a classroom teacher, can learn from:

  • water breaks – they take frequent water breaks and can get water whenever they need it. I’m surprised how many of my students start every year off asking if they can get a drink of water. If it doesn’t disrupt others, go for it. Asking is unnecessary. We should all be able to take care of our basic needs.
  • modeling – the coaches do a lot of modeling and have students model for each other
  • praising – the coaches identify what the kids are doing well and praise it, they make sure the students are aware of their strengths
  • individual work – fencing is only meaningful when done with someone else but there is plenty of individual work kids can do to improve their skills. They fence with others but they also work on skills independently
  • feedback – the coaches are giving constant feedback. This includes the praise mentioned above but also tips on how to improve and ways to tweak.
  • actually doing what fencers do – from the very beginning kids are actually fencing with others. They don’t learn isolated skills for months or years before doing what they are actually studying to do. They are doing it from the start.

I would bet that none of these coaches have any formal teaching experience. I doubt they’ve had any PD on management or assessment or such. I have learned so much from them though.

How I Read

A few years ago I asked my eye doctor for bifocals (apparently progressives are now the thing and I was behind the times). My doctor suggested I take off my glasses for reading and that would solve my problem. That’s what both of our daughters do. I pushed back because, as a teacher, I need to be able to read a book and look out across my class, back and forth, back and forth. There isn’t time to be removing and replacing glasses for that. So I now have progressives. And they are fabulous (mostly).

I’ve read a few books to my class in the first couple of weeks of school. A few being about two per day, on average. And I’ve gotten to thinking about how the way I read the book impacts my understanding and enjoyment of it.

When I read a book to myself I tend to skim, at least a little. If it’s a picture book I don’t pay close attention to the pictures. I enjoy the phrasing, the language choices, the illustrations, but I don’t soak them in as I read.

When I read a book out loud I am far more aware of the writing. I catch alliteration I missed when I read to myself. I notice phrases that compliment each other. I see turns of phrase that make me smile. I appreciate the work the author did in putting those words together in just that way.

When I read a book aloud to a group their enjoyment of it increases mine. I hear their gasps and chuckles. They mutter about things they see in the illustrations – things I had completely missed. They call out predictions and questions. (And thanks to my progressives I can see the looks on their faces and the gems in the illustrations they point out.)

Thinking about this has helped me understand why reading books to my class is one of my favorite parts of my job. I have books I hoard and hide away because I don’t want anyone to discover them until I can read them aloud. I have many titles I won’t let a substitute or colleague read to my kids. The joy of reading a book aloud to a group of children is such a gift.

This arrived in the mail today. I sat down and read it slowly, taking in the language and exploring the illustrations. It was worth every minute. Still, even after that, I’m sure it will be an even better book when I read it to my class.