Trying to Be Clever

I always want to be clever when it comes to holiday gifts for my administrators. I don’t know why I feel like I should get them something much less why I feel compelled to be clever about it, but it is what it is. This year December was a bit more than I could handle. (Thank goodness I’d taken care of gifts for my colleagues and much of our family months ago. I’m rarely that on top of things but it was such a wonderful relief this year.)

Very last minute I pulled together a tin of goodies linked to initiatives at our school. We’re in our first year of being a Literacy Collaborative school so each of my administrators got a journal to go with our work on writing and reading.

For several years now we’ve been working on implementing math workshop so I included the chocolate money to represent that. The long box on the side is full of maple sugar leaves. Those connect to our amazing outdoor classroom that has been growing for a number of years but really expanded this year. The blood orange candies represent our fresh fruits and vegetables program. Our kiddos get a serving of a fresh fruit or vegetable as a snack three days a week. We had blood oranges recently. The Mixed Emotions jelly beans connect to our new work on The Positivity Project.

I’m satisfied with this as my gift but not impressed by it. It meets my minimum standards. Hopefully I’ll raise the bar a bit next year.

Readings to Wrap Up 2018

November and December have been a bit busy and I haven’t stayed on top of this as well as I would have liked (and there are still a lot of pieces from the past couple of weeks that I haven’t even read yet).

This piece from Tom Woodward, Digital Survival Skills, is full of ideas on how to make smart decisions about apps and other digital tools we use. Plus, Tom always has fabulous endnotes in his posts. This piece is full of good advice.

No point in creating a miserable experience for yourself even if it’s “highly productive.” Set up workflows and patterns that energize you and make you happy.

I frequently share pieces from Jose Vilson and I’m likely to keep doing so as long as he keeps writing them. This one, You Don’t Have to Like It (Students Watch and Talk About Us, Anyways) addresses the importance of students’ stories and voices in schools.

Our society vastly undervalues student opinion as a matter of course. In the way of efficiency and so-called rigidity, we continually push for institutions that force schooling upon students, not education for and with students.

Sherri Spelic‘s brilliance is not new to me, but this piece really made me sit back in awe. Most of my colleagues don’t attend conferences and I am often asked, after I return from one, to share my learning. I struggle with how best to do this and, as a result, I rarely do anything. Sherri’s strategy here is awesome.

I drafted an e-mail which included links to the blog post I wrote, to the conference website and to the hashtag tweets, as well as some photos from the session I led. I want people to know where I’ve been, what I gained and what I’m bringing back.

Not only does that share her conference experience, but it’s a great way to reflect and think about the highlights of the conference.

Continuing with people I already knew were brilliant, Marian Dingle wrote You Didn’t Want to Know, a piece about Twitter Math Camp, that I’ve needed to read more than once. There is so much here about making conferences (or other events and spaces) truly welcoming to all. As one who looks like the great majority of people attending the conferences I attend, I am exceptionally grateful to Marian for taking the time and emotional energy to write this piece. It is a lens I lacked and the more I read pieces the more I am able to take on this lens.

Instead of asking what type of flowers the guest likes, how about inviting them to co-create the visit with you? Plan the activities, meals, and décor? This is easy if the imagined space always included educators of color, much more difficult if it never did. This is the renewed thinking that I crave. I don’t want to feel welcome in your conference; I want to feel that I belong in ours. I want to feel that I am creating it along with you. Why did you never think to ask me? Why didn’t it feel hollow with my absence?

Going perfectly along with Marian’s piece is this one from Julia Torres about NCTE, another conference. From my vantage point, following the conference on twitter, Julia rocked that conference. Reading her piece helps me remember how much it takes for someone to do that, especially an educator of color. Julia’s piece also goes beyond conferences and is a reminder of what it means to be a person of color in our society.

It might help if people understood that for those of us who have been historically or consistently underrepresented in the field of education, these “instances” that people would like to see as one-offs or isolated events are anything but that.  It is exhausting to always have to be the one to point that out.  I can’t speak for everybody, but I can speak for myself when I say that whenever I go into spaces where POC are not the majority, I hope things like these will not happen.  Yet, they always do. I feel cut by them, and this is what makes attending educational conferences so exhausting.

One of the treats of going to VSTE, even briefly this year, was getting to spend some time with Karen Richardson in person. Like so many of the people linked here I get to see her online often, but in person rarely. She wrote Just Because You Can Look It Up, Should You? It gets at the question of direct instruction vs student exploration. A question that is more complex than it appears at first glance and more complex than many people believe.

I saw a comment on Twitter recently suggesting that teachers should never tell students things that they could look up. It struck me as one of those zero sum statements that are not helpful as we try to navigate the changing relationship between teachers and students. Teachers have expert knowledge to share that can help students move forward with their own learning more efficiently. Finding the balance of when to share and when to encourage students to explore on their own is, in my humble opinion, part of the art of teaching.

I have been amazed for quite some time at Audrey Watters‘ ability to collect and curate educational news stories every week. Some weeks it has been difficult for me to read her collection because it is painful. Actually creating it must have been far harder. Audrey is doing work that is rarely happening in education and she is doing it exceptionally well. I have learned so much from her writing over the years and I look forward to that continuing, even if in a different format. So I’m sharing here her last Hack Education Weekly News. But what I’m really doing is saying that you should be reading her, following her on twitter, learning from her in any way possible if you aren’t already.

Kevin Hodgson is a favorite of mine because of the various ways he uses his site and his writing. He clearly uses it for his own reflection and learning. He also writes about his writing process and helps us see what he is doing and gain new ideas and strategies. (He does a lot more but this is where my brain is about him right now.) In Writing a Song about Watching a Writer at Work you can see some of this. It’s amazing. So is the song,

Just for the fun of it, read this piece, An Interview with Santa’s Lawyer, from John Scalzi, a sci-fi/fantasy author. Just a quick taste…

Because he has a round belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly.

Which is not true, by the way. I’ve seen Santa out of uniform. That dude is ripped.

On another note, this piece from Teacher Tom is a great example of how teachers think through events in their lives and use that understanding to better support kids.

I’m an adult person, not typically prone to these sorts of aggravations, yet a mere thup-thup-thup threw me completely off my game for a time, causing what others would consider inappropriately strong emotions, so strong in fact that I had taken measures to remove myself. Imagine being a child, less mature and experienced. Imagine being unable to pinpoint the cause of these strong, prickly feelings, not having the option to remove yourself, or the experience to do so, nor the self-control to not lash out.

And one last just-for-fun post from KQED’s Mind/Shift. Quick snippets from teachers about gifts they have received from students.

Jill Lowery, a grade school teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, sent a simple, sweet story: “I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with one slice of bread, folded in half, stuffed in a plain white envelope.”

It was from a first-grader, and the bread was a little crusty by the time Lowery got home. But she wrote, “I was amazed by his ability to think so sweetly of me.”

2018 has offered many great pieces of writing (and there are probably more currently waiting in my RSS reader, sigh). I’m looking forward to what 2019 brings.

Courage to Serve All Children, VSTE Part VII

Our current system does not have high expectations for all children. Just before VSTE’s annual conference this year I read this article from the New York Times, Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the RealityThis school was sending students to ivy league colleges and was getting lauded by news organizations, talk show hosts, and more. But it turns out they weren’t holding high expectations for their students. They were exploiting them.

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers saidStudents were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

Far too often our educational system fails students of color, students learning English, poor students, students in the LGBTQ+ community, students who have faced multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences, and more.

We have to have the courage to recognize how the systemic issues in our society impact the way we see the students we serve. We are not horrible people because we have internalized so many of the messages in our society. We are human. We are also educators, however, and we have to move beyond our biases in order to truly serve all students.

We also have to have the courage to engage in difficult conversations. I am a strong believer in the importance of diverse literature for children. I have worked for years to have a classroom library with a wide range of authors, illustrators, and characters that reflect many. I have struggled with having book that have LGBTQ+ characters, however. I have had fear of angering families and/or administrators. It took many years before I began buying those books for my classroom library. I had to have some difficult conversations with myself. Some internal arguing about living what I believe. When I finally got courageous enough to do that, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I simply put the books in the library with all the others. I was still afraid. In the past few years I’ve book talked and read aloud books with LGBTQ+ characters. I have the courage now to have the difficult conversations with others if someone challenges these books being available to my students.

I am saddened by the idea that I need courage to do this. That it takes courage for me to ensure that all of my students are seen and welcomed into our classroom. That just makes it that much more important, though.

As educators we need the courage to challenge. To challenge ourselves to identify our biases and notice where we are falling short. To challenge our colleagues. To challenge families and students. To challenge our administrators. To challenge the system.

If what we are doing every day does not require courage, if it isn’t pushing us outside of our comfort zone, if it isn’t requiring confrontation and uncomfortable conversations, then it also isn’t serving all kids.

Courage to Stand Up and Say No, VSTE Part VI

The mascot at my school is a leprechaun by the name of Lenny. St. Patrick’s Day is known as Lenny Day at my school and it is a BIG deal. Like many leprechauns, Lenny has been known to make a mess. (If you’ve never been in an elementary school on St. Patrick’s Day you are really missing out.) I was out last year on Lenny Day and my students were concerned about what might happen so one of them wrote this note and taped it to our door.

I was inspired. If an 8 year old could stand up to Lenny, which is like standing up to Santa or the Tooth Fairy, surely I could stand up when needed. This kid knew that Lenny would cause trouble, that what Lenny would do would not be best for us, so this kid took a stand. Educators have to do the same thing. We have to identify the things we are doing or being asked to do that are harming children and stand up and say no. To our bosses, to parents, to legislators.

Equally as difficult, or possibly even more difficult, we have to keep teaching children in a system that we are fighting. We have to keep putting students first. We are living in a society of racial and socioeconomic discrimination and oppression. It is far bigger than just our schools, but our schools are a part of that system. Recognizing the racial and socioeconomic discrimination and oppression that is systemic in our society and our schools is critical and is a lot to face and to carry. In spite of that we have to have the courage to keep teaching children. To keep teaching them in spite of the fact that they are living in a system that does not want them to succeed. We have to keep working to give them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. And to work towards a better, more equitable society.

Courage to Take Care of Ourselves – VSTE Part IV

It seems like it wouldn’t take courage to take care of ourselves, but I actually believe it does. Our fear of all the things we won’t do, all the balls we will drop, all the people we will disappoint, make it hard for us to put ourselves first. Honestly, the older I get, the easier I find it to be!

My very first principal told us, her staff, to take mental health days when needed. My currently principal frequently reminds us that we must put our own oxygen masks on before we put on anyone else’s. I’ve been lucky to work for principals who recognize the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to take care of others.

Another thing I’m learning, still, slowly but surely, is that taking care of myself requires setting boundaries and drawing lines. I have to know when to say I’ve had enough, I’m doing enough, and that’s it. I know many teachers who give their cell phone numbers to students and/or families. I rarely do that. It’s a line I know I need to draw. It’s not the same line for everyone. Some teachers never give their number. I have done so in special circumstances. Some give it to all. You have to know what your lines are.

Another piece of taking care of ourselves is presuming positive intentions. This is very challenging for me. It is not a natural instinct. In fact, ‘presume positive intentions’ is a mantra for me. I have to repeat it in order to keep that focus. This is true when it comes to students, families, colleagues, and administrators. But when I don’t presume positive intentions it increases my stress levels and makes me feel worse. It’s worth doing for myself and for the others in my life.

Finally, taking care of ourselves requires that we keep going and that we know when to quit. We’ve all had those mornings when we just can’t get out of bed. We can’t face the mountain of papers, the meeting with an administrator or parent, that student who will push our buttons, and so on. Getting out of bed and keeping going on those days requires effort and courage.

We also have to know when to quit. Pam Moran shared with me that a mentor of hers told her, at the start of a new job, to write her resignation letter. That way if she was asked to do anything that went against her beliefs, her values, her core as an educator and person, she was ready to quit and walk away. I worked at one school for sixteen years. I thought I would retire there as it was such an amazing place to work. A friend and former colleague referred to it as the think tank because of the atmosphere of learning and growth that permeated the staff. Growing up as a teacher there was a gift. Eventually however, factors (mostly) beyond the school crept it and things changed. I realized I had to walk away from my professional home for my own sake and for the sake of the students I served. I could no longer do my best there. Quitting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally.

I feel like that’s a dad who doesn’t know when to quit. He would be far happier and healthier if he had walked away from this argument far earlier. (That said, the mom here is a genius. And this girl is awesome. We should all have her confidence in ourselves. She’s going to be just fine.)

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Sometimes the problem is the system. We can only do so much when the system is a significant part of the problem. I don’t have an answer for that. I just feel like it is important to remember that we can only do what we can do. I think that’s why knowing when to keep going and when to quit is critical. The challenge, of course, is that the kids don’t get to make that choice. It’s a vicious place to be for far too many educators.

Courage to Truly See Our Students and Their Families, VSTE Part V

Seeing our students and their families, truly seeing them rather than seeing in them a mirror reflection of ourselves, can be difficult and painful and hard. Some of my students and their families have faced significant trauma and their stories are difficult for me to hear and to understand. Many of my students are first or second generation immigrant from El Salvador and Honduras. Some families left after family members were killed and they were threatened. I’ve read students’ files, documents that are written in formal and clinical ways, and been broken. I know that the amount I know of their stories is small. But it is still enough to break my heart. I can’t ignore what I know. I can’t let it take over, but I need to face it and see their reality. I need to understand their lives outside of school, as that’s the majority of their lives.

I need to know them too. Too often in an elementary school we label children as defiant or unmotivated or hyper. It’s easier to use these words, to identify kids this way, than it is to look more deeply, to see what is making a child seem defiant or hyper or lacking motivation. Seeing our students and truly knowing them takes courage.

Once we truly see our students and their families, we need to build relationships. One thing this requires takes us back a bit – we have to presume positive intentions. The jobs of educators are tough and we often look for reasons why it is so difficult. Families are one reason we can identify. But we need to presume positive intentions and recognize that families want the best for their children and do all they can towards that goal. Architects often use triangles in buildings and bridges because they provide stability and strength. Those two things are useful in buildings and in our students’ lives. The triangle we can create for them consists of us (teachers, administrators, school support staff) as one point, the family as another point, and the student as the final point. Those three working closely together will offer significant stability and strength.

Those relationships will lead to another critical piece, to trusting students and families. Another story from Pam Moran:

A year ago right after the incredibly difficult white nationalist events in Charlottesville which impacted Albemarle County as well, a student wrote a one-act play about a police shooting of a black teen. I received significant pressure from a variety of sources to not let the drama group at that high school perform the play. It was a social media story, a mainstream media story, and also emails and calls to the Board and me. I made the decision to let the play go forward and it was a rousing success (performed multiple times locally) and ended up generating a local newspaper editorial praising the play as a healing event for the entire community.  When I shared Josh St. Still’s story at the NJ supts association state conference, I received a twitter DM from an attendee who wanted Josh to speak at a Ted-like event in NYC. The drama teacher connected with him and this past spring, Josh was flown to NYC to share his story.”

Pam’s willingness to trust this student (and the teachers in his school) led to an experience that benefited so many in her district and beyond. Trust definitely requires courage and trusting students, children, is often extra difficult.

Finally, when it comes to truly seeing our students we have to be willing (and courageous enough) to teach the whole child. Many teachers say they teach English or Biology or third grade. As Chris Lehmann says, “We teach students.” It is easy for content to be king in schools. We have to keep students front and center and this requires that we see them as whole people, not just as readers or mathematicians. As an elementary school teacher it is fairly easy for me to think about the balance between academic learning and growth and social-emotional learning and growth. And if I have to err on one side, I will always lean towards social-emotional learning and growth. Social-emotional learning is essential for all other learning. I know high school students now who are self-harming and suicidal. Unless their teachers are willing to truly see them and to address them and teach them as whole people they will be lost. They won’t gain what they need emotionally or academically. We have to have the courage to fully see our students and to fully teach them.

The Role of Technology in Courage, VSTE Part III

There is some language in the following video, just as a heads up…

That video makes me laugh, but it also strikes a chord for me. I’ve been in a room with a bat, more than once, and I found it terrifying. It would require a significant amount of courage for me to do what that man is doing, trying to catch that bat in order to release it. The camera man is, to my eyes, supporting and encouraging, making it easier for the other man to be courageous. It is easier to have courage, if not easy, when there are people supporting and encouraging you.

We talk a lot in education circles about what technology can do for our students and I believe in that. I am lucky enough to be in a 1 to 1 classroom and to be able to offer my students the benefits of technology regularly. However, I think technology offers us, as educators, something equally powerful. Technology allows us to connect with others. We can quickly, deeply, and efficiently connect with educators across the country and around the world. We can build connections with others who support us and encourage us to have the courage to take risks, to do what is right for our students and our profession. We can build connections with others who can teach us and who can push us beyond our comfort zones.

I began teaching in 1998 and I began blogging in 2005. I’m sure I grew a lot in those first few years of teaching – I think it would be impossible not to do so! I did my National Board Certification in 2002 and I know that helped me improve as a teacher immensely. But. I am confident that the best thing I have ever done for my own professional growth is blog. Blogging forces me to reflect on what I am doing as a teacher, the choices I am making. That’s a critical thing for a teacher to do. That can be done in a journal, however. Clearly I don’t, but it could be done that way and it would be useful. It wouldn’t be as useful as blogging though, because it would be private. Blogging not only forces me to reflect, but doing that where others can read it, allows for feedback. Others can read my reflections and respond. They can ask questions. They can validate and affirm my choices. They can push back. They can help me see things in a different light, from another perspective. That is what blogging has done for me.

Then, in 2007, I joined twitter. That increased the size of my professional village beyond my expectations. Not only did twitter allow me to get to know so many educators who are models for me but the hashtags brought me into conversations that broadened my understanding of what education can and should be.

Some people from whom I learn regularly:

Some hashtags I love:

I’m sure I’m forgetting many people and hashtags, but this is a good start.

I am certain I am a more courageous educator because of technology. Seeing others who are doing the hard work, who are standing up for kids and each other, who are taking risks for what they know is right – they help me to do the same. There is an immense network of brilliant, thoughtful, caring educators who are there to catch me when I fall, who listen when I feel I have failed, and who have my back when the work is hard. They also offer me a window into their worlds, the worlds of other educators, people who are courageous and who are doing all of the things that terrify me but that I know matter. Seeing people doing that work is inspiring and it is also a kick in the butt.

That’s what the online world feels like to me. It feels like I have found a place that strengthens me. Being here makes me stronger and more able to do the hard work.

The Downside of the Golden Rule, VSTE Part II

In addition to fear, I think our own best intentions often hold us back in education. The Golden Rule, treat others as you would have them treat you, seems like a worthy way to go through life, but I believe it can actually be detrimental to many. My husband and I will celebrate our twenty-first wedding anniversary later this month. That suggests we’re doing something right. However, I’ve come to realize that when I want to do something kind for him or be extra helpful, I fail thanks to the Golden Rule. He is a college professor so the beginning and end of semesters are often extra chaotic and times in which I’d like to do what I can to take things off his plate. That often means I’ll make sure the dishes are all done and the kitchen is cleaned up. But honestly, I don’t know that he really notices that. I’m the one who feels stressed when there are dirty dishes piled up in the sink. If I want to really help him, it would probably be better if I dealt with all the old leftovers in the refrigerator or emptied the overflowing recycling bin. Those things don’t bother me so much so I don’t think about them but they would likely be more helpful in lowering his stress levels. I have the best of intentions but I am doing what I want rather than what might truly help him.

from Brian Solis’s flickr

I think this how our educational system works as well. The great majority of the folks who are working in the system are white, middle class, cis-gendered, English speaking, straight folks. Like me. For most, school worked really well for us when we were kids. So we continue doing what worked for us, what we would want done. But we aren’t the same as the kids we’re serving. For some? Yes. My youngest daughter is a sixth grader and she’s one of those kids who rocks at school. It doesn’t require a lot of effort for her. It just works. Of course, she is white, middle class, cis-gendered, English speaking, and straight. So…

My older daughter, the one who deals with anxiety, school doesn’t work as easily or as well for her. It requires more effort. For my students? Many of them speak other languages, many are first and second generation immigrants, many face food and housing insecurity, many have faced numerous traumas in their lives. School doesn’t always work as well for them and that’s a systemic problem we need to face.

Fear and the Need for Courage, VSTE Part I

Last week I gave the Sunday Spotlight talk at VSTE’s annual conference. It was quite an honor to be asked and was, by far, the largest platform I’ve ever had. As I may never again speak to that many people I wanted to get it right. I chose to talk about courage and ways in which educators need to be courageous.

In planning for the talk I reached out to Pam Moran, the former superintendent of Albemarle County here in Virginia, and a role model to me in having courage in education. She generously answered many questions very thoughtfully and gave me so much to think about, as usual. I kicked off the talk with a quote from her responses to me: “I think courage moves us to do that which we otherwise fear doing.”

This quote got me thinking about our oldest daughter. She’s 15, a sophomore in high school, and another model for me when it comes to courage. She has an anxiety disorder that has impacted her life since she was at least in kindergarten. Due to her anxiety she is afraid to do many things. She’s afraid she’ll disappoint her teachers, or us, or her friends. She’s afraid she won’t measure up. She’s afraid she’ll embarrass herself. In spite of those fears, she takes honors classes in high school, she auditions for concerts, and she is a fierce advocate for her peers and herself with teachers, administrators, and others. She reminds me how and why to be courageous.

We watched this video together and my oldest daughter pointed out to me that she is the first cat and I am the second. She said, “Mom, you do that to me. Usually when I’m in the car before something starts and I won’t get out and go because I’m too scared. You push me out.” I don’t literally push her out, of course. But I do, at least sometimes, force her to do things that she is afraid of doing. Sometimes we need others to be that push, that kick in the butt, to help us be courageous.

This is especially true when it is easy for us to believe that our fears are founded.


Last summer we went to Spain and spent one day in Gibraltar. A few weeks before our visit a skywalk had been put in, like the one at the Grand Canyon, but much smaller. You can walk out on the glass and look down the Rock of Gibraltar. Well, some people can. I can’t. I have a significant fear of heights. I stayed back at a distance looking out. One of the panels of this skywalk, this very new skywalk, was blocked off because it was cracked. To me that was the universe telling me that my fears were totally reasonable, completely right. That walking out on that skywalk was a foolish thing to do. But my husband and my oldest daughter walked out there. They do not fear heights and they got to see a view I completely missed. Because of my fear. Overcoming fear is hard enough without the universe reinforcing the fear.