Reading Too Narrowly

I regularly have a ridiculous number of tabs open in my browser (that little image is what it looks like right now). A few stay open all the time (my teux-deux list, my email, tweetdeck, and my RSS reader). Everything else is temporary. But temporary can mean open for months and months depending. Some tabs are things I want to read or watch. Some are things I want to share or write about. Others are things I need to hang on to until I can take care of something. That might mean talk to my husband or daughters about it, decide if it is something I want to/can do, etc.

The open tabs that I want to share I’m working on sharing here. I did it about a week ago and I’d like to do it regularly. However, after posting that last one I realized I had shared pieces from three white men and one white woman.

Is that a sign that I’m not reading widely enough? Probably.

Is that a sign that I’m not paying enough attention and therefore connecting enough to writers of color that I am reading? Probably.

Are there factors that mean more white men are writing regularly? Possibly.

I’ve made a conscious effort to have the people I read consistently on twitter be a diverse group, in many ways. I read educators and noneducators. I read people who teach at all levels from pre-K through higher ed. I read men, women, and non-binary folk. I read people who live in different places in the U.S. and around the world. I read people of different races and ethnicities. It’s far from perfect, but I’ve been more consciously thoughtful about my twitter feed than I have my RSS feed.

Who are you reading that I should be reading?

It’s Wonder-ful (yes I went there)

I’m reading R. J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, to my 3rd graders right now. There is so much I want to say about this (not just this read aloud but others recently and about books we’re reading in general). For the moment though, I’m struck by a recent conversation I had with a colleague.

She noticed that many of my students have copies of Wonder in their book boxes. At least one owns his own copy (actually, I think he owns two copies as he got one for Christmas and then recently saw the one with the cover from the movie poster and convinced his folks to get him that one too – he wasn’t a reader before this year so I think they’re more willing to do this than most would be). Others have checked copies out from the school library. As we sit on the carpet, reading together, they are reading along. Other friends are leaning over their shoulders, joining them.

My colleague remarked that I’m really nice to allow them to do this. She said many teachers wouldn’t allow students to be reading the same book the teacher is reading aloud. The fear being, I guess, that the students would read ahead and possibly would give something away.

I realized I used to be that teacher. I’m not sure I ever explicitly told students not to read a book I was reading, but I certainly don’t remember a time when students actually did read a book I was reading. I can remember thinking I didn’t want students to read ahead. I wanted to control the reading.

I’m not that teacher any more for several reasons.

  1. I don’t need to control anywhere near as much as I used to. Across the board.
  2. I don’t want to do anything that will squash a student’s love of or excitement for reading.
  3. I don’t worry about a book being ‘spoiled’. The joy of the book is in the shared experience of it, the discussions about it, the gasps and laughter and tears as we read it. Even if students have read ahead and even if they’ve told others about it, we’ll still have that shared experience, discussions, and reactions.

The teacher I am now is thrilled to look out at my students and see multiple copies of the book in their hands.

Perception Can Be Subconscious

As a family we’ve been watching West Wing from the beginning. Our daughters are 14 and 11 and it’s been a wonderful experience, with a few hard conversations. We’ve just begun the third season. As we watch, I’ve been trying to listen to West Wing Weekly, a podcast by Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway. They spend one episode (usually) of the podcast on each episode of the show. I’m a bit behind. As usual.

Today I was listening to the podcast about episode 20 in season 2, The Fall’s Gonna Kill You. It’s a fun episode of the podcast, as usual. But I was struck by something in it that really has nothing to do with the podcast or with West Wing. Joshua Malina mentions a briefcase in the episode that looks well used and not brand new. He really likes that as it feels real and he talks about how his wife was a costume person for many years and how she notices when things are too new. He said something along the lines of: She’ll say, that shirts brand new. That’s not a shirt that character’s been wearing for three years. Malina said that makes a difference in building the world in which a show is set.

Never in 40+ years of watching tv and movies have I ever noticed that something looked too new for a character. Never. However, I recognize that it is quite possible that subconsciously such things have bothered me, even without my being able to identify them. It takes pretty egregious problems for me to get consciously annoyed at a show or movie. I’m very happy to suspend reality and just enjoy.

It struck me that this is true in life as well. Even when we don’t identify something as racist or sexist or ableist or whatever it might be that suggests that one group of people is less than another it is influencing our view of the world. Just as our view of a fictional world may be impacted by many things we don’t consciously notice, our view of reality may be as well.

You may not notice that people of color and women are always secondary characters in movies and tv shows but it impacts your understanding of the world. You may not notice the demeaning comments made to others but it impacts your understanding of the world. You may not notice the characters in all of the books you read but it impacts your understanding of the world.

As humans we take in so much that we don’t notice and it all becomes a part of how we view the world and others around us. If we don’t at least attempt to notice when that happens we are continuing the status quo and continuing to ensure that many are treated as less than others in our society. Question what you see. Question what you believe. Keep asking. It’s not always easy for me but it matters.

I Think the Walkout Mattered

My 3rd graders are in specials at 10:00 am so I was able to join students for the walkout yesterday. I didn’t have any idea what to expect in the way of whether or not students at our school would walkout or how they would do it, if they did.

I was a few minutes late (as specials begins at 10:00 am) so I walked across our field to stand with more than 50 fifth and sixth graders and a handful of other staff members. I had forgotten my coat and it was darn cold. But I looked at students without coats, one in short sleeves and figured I’d be fine.

I opted not to take any pictures of the walkout. It wasn’t my thing and I wanted to be respectful of these students. For seventeen minutes they stood outside in weather that was, with the wind chill, below freezing, without talking at all. A few held signs. Some were teary. I was impressed. And teary. I decided to take a short video of the sky to capture the quiet of these children and adults. Our school sits on a very busy road so cars and birds were most of what I heard during that seventeen minutes.

I have no idea if this national walkout will change anything. I do know that I stood outside, shivering, near those young people and was impressed. I was struck by the thought that these kids, at 11 or 12 or 13, were taking action. They were building a sense of themselves as someone who can take action, someone who can make change, someone who can be involved. I think that means these kids are more likely to vote in a few years, more likely to volunteer for political campaigns, more likely to write to their elected officials, more likely to run for office. That is worth a lot.

I feel this even more strongly because the great majority of the students at my school are first or second generation immigrants, many from Honduras or El Salvador. These are not children who are growing up seeing people who look like them in positions of power. For them to stand up, take a risk, and band together is beautiful in my eyes.

Some Interesting Reading

My brain has been in so many places lately, all of which have kept me from being here. Mentally I’ve been here a lot, but in the actual physical world, I haven’t gotten myself here. There is much I want to do here and we’ll see if I can make that happen.

For the moment, I’ve read a few things I found fascinating and worth sharing.

John Scalzi, science fiction author, wrote recently about the 20th anniversary of hosting his own site. I haven’t been hosting this one nearly that long but I have no regrets at all about having moved from Google’s Blogspot to my own site. If you aren’t hosting your own site yet and are interested in doing so, check out Reclaim Hosting. Affordable and surprisingly reliable, you can’t do better.

The always fabulous Zac Chase (who is making my day by writing so often these days) has written a bunch of fabulous pieces recently but this one really struck me. He recommends a ‘teacher exit ticket’, a way of reflecting on lessons. As one who believes that reflection is the most critical skill teachers need, this caught me.

I’ve read two pieces recently about the idea of arming teachers that I think really understand the reality. The first is from Chris Lehmann and focuses on why this discussion is happening and why it needs to stop. The second is from Larry Cuban and focuses more on why this is a terrible idea.

The final one I want to share is from Pernille Ripp. She writes about the importance of sharing books that will speak to and offer the experiences of all types of kiddos.

Enjoy these posts from people who are managing to get their thinking together (unlike me).

Community = Positive…Mostly

One of the things I most clearly and firmly believe about education is the importance of relationships. Since our oldest entered middle school and high school I’ve seen this on a new scale. The classes she most enjoys each year haven’t been because of the content, but because of the teacher. This year our musical theater loving, fan fiction writing, highly empathetic kid loves geometry and biology over everything (except maybe American Sign Language). Those two teachers have built relationships with her and communities in their classrooms that have made those classes places she loves to be.

Her experiences have only solidified what I already believed and worked for in our classroom. Every morning I stand at our door and greet my students with a handshake, high five, or hug, their choice (or an elbow bump, something we started when I wasn’t feeling great and didn’t want to risk passing on germs). And, most critically, their name and a smile. That way I can be sure every kid gets a smile from me every day. Given how many hours they spend with me, it would be nice to think I needn’t worry about that. But sometimes there’s that kid who is just getting to me and I want to know that they get a smile. Plus, starting off the day that way can’t be bad.

I apologize when I screw up. That isn’t always easy, but it is important. I try hard to really focus on students and listen as they share things with me. (I may find it dull at times, but it is important to them so it matters.) I invite families in once a month to do something with us in our classroom. I send postcards home to students celebrating something they did. I want to know my students and I want them to know me. I want them to feel seen and heard. I believe that will make it easier for them to learn, feel invested in their learning, and take risks.

a postcard from earlier this year

All of which is good.

This past week I began to wonder if there wasn’t a downside. Not a downside to relationships or community per se. A downside to what it meant for my behavior and choices. As a result of the relationships I’ve worked hard to build (although, it’s really not that hard with young children, to be honest) I wonder if I take advantage of that.

If I’m really truthful, I’m not wondering. I have realized I do this. Maybe not all the time, but definitely some. Having strong relationships with young children gives one power over them. Even more power than one already has as an adult and teacher, which is plenty of power.

My students trust me, they like me, they want to make me happy. I trust them, like them, and want to make them happy as well. That’s part of having a strong relationship. What I’ve realized recently, and it’s taken longer than it should because I’m really good at denial, is that I use that trust and respect to manipulate their behavior. I know that they want to make me happy and I can use that to get them to behave or complete work. That’s not terrible, but I’d rather they behave to be respectful and kind to others and I’d rather they complete work because they’re interested in learning. They are human and I don’t expect them to do this all the time, but it is a goal.

Sometimes I manage to make this our focus. Sometimes I discuss with them why I expect them to behave a certain way. Other times…I just give them a look or a sharp word.

Sometimes I make sure the work I’m asking them to do is challenging in an interesting way. Sometimes I make sure they have choice in what they’re doing. Sometimes I make sure they get to share their thinking about their learning and what is and isn’t working for them. Sometimes…Other times, I threaten repercussions if things don’t get done.

I recognize that, like my students, I am human and I will screw up. My goal is to screw up less often. My goal is to work with my students in the community we’ve built rather than resort to manipulation and coercion.

Math Properties, Ugh

Properties in math are one of my least favorite things to teach. Not the ideas of them, those are fine (at least most of the time). But the names and connecting those names to the property. Especially for my second language learners, this is a challenge. In a teammate’s room recently I noticed something on her easel that was so brilliant I immediately stole the idea.

She had written one of her student’s names X 1 = the student’s name. For example:

Jennifer X 1 = Jennifer

I brought up one of my students and asked her who she is. She gave her name, looking at me a little oddly. I asked her who she is at home. She gave her name again, looking at me even more oddly. I asked her who she is if she wears a dress. She gave her name, but qualified it by saying that would never happen. I asked who she is on the playground, who she is if we cut her hair really short, who she is if she’s standing on her head. After a few, she and her classmates were chuckling. We talked about the fact that she is herself, no matter what. That is her identity.

We then connected to math and figured out which numbers in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division allow a number to keep its identity. So far, so good.

Next up we tackled the commutative property. I asked if they were familiar with commuters, but that was a flop. I did take a moment to explain what it means to commute somewhere and how it is all about moving. I brought up two students and asked the class who they were. Then I swapped their places and asked again. Of course, this time my kiddos got it immediately. I moved the kids a bit more, but they didn’t need me to do so.

We wrote a few equations on the board to model this, such as:

8 + 13 = 13 + 8 and 8 X 13 = 13 X 8

We figured out, through our conversation, that this only works for addition and multiplication. Not bad.

Building our math identities at our Family Math Night.

I don’t think we’re experts on these properties yet, but we’ve got a better handle on them than I’ve ever managed before. One of the goals from here on out, for me, will be to use the names of the properties regularly to be sure students are hanging on to those. Vocabulary is a challenge. I feel confident they have the identity property, if not the name, solidly. The commutative is one we’ll need to keep playing around with to cement it more.

I feel like I should bake cookies for my teammate!

One of My Writers

One of my 3rd graders came in after a long weekend in January (we had a lot of them) and brought me this book. She had created it over the weekend and wanted me to see it. (After taking pictures of it and getting her permission to share, I returned it to her. It’s too good. She needs to keep it.)

The title, of course, brought me joy. How could you go wrong? Plus, she told me that she messed up the ‘h’ but fixed it with the rainbow. So awesome.

Such a fun lede. And the dancing cupcake is so unexpected and clever.

I love that Blue Happy Cat has musical notes around him. I firmly believe that it’s hard to be joyful without music. And Grumpy Turtle’s eyebrows are fabulous. And those crossed eyes. This girl is on.

The first time I skimmed through the book I didn’t really process this page. “His friends said to read a book called ‘The happiest book ever’!” His friends told him to read this book. The one he is in. So meta. Just perfect.

Every time I look at this page I have to slow down a bit because, initially, I swear it says The Fndu. And that confuses me. (Fonts are important. Sometimes I forget that.)

I don’t know if she had an extra page at the end or if she just wanted to draw wormy. Either way it makes me smile.

I adore that this child sees herself as an author and illustrator. That this is how she chooses to spend her time. A week or so later she brought in another book, The Naughty Llama. I don’t seem to have taken a picture of it, but that title cracked me up.

High-Quality Compliments

The day before Educon was the last day for one of my students. At the end of the day we all gathered on the carpet in a circle for our goodbye ceremony. I had a shell, held it in my hands, and said something special about the girl who was moving. I then passed the shell on to the student beside me who did the same. The shell slowly worked its way around the circle, gathering all the things we like about this girl or things that made her special. At the end, the shell made it to her and she took it with all the good thoughts.

Multiple kids were teary or crying during our goodbye ceremony. Some shared such thoughtful, caring ideas. Many of these kids, I would have sworn, did not know this girl all that well. I was wrong. They had noticed wonderful things about her.

I left that day thinking about how to bring that kindness and thoughtfulness toward each other into our classroom more regularly. I didn’t want us to wait for a classmate to leave for us to share how special they are to us.

Fortunately, the next morning I headed to Educon. In Matthew Kay‘s session he shared some things he does to help build trust and community in his English classes. One of the ideas, which was actually described by Zac Chase (as he’s the one from whom Matt got the idea), was High Quality Compliments*. In Zac’s and Matt’s rooms, if I remember correctly, the teacher gives random high quality compliments (compliments about you as a human being). These are random even to the teacher (chosen similar to pulling a name out of a hat). Zac mentioned this required him to always be focused on the positives of each student in order to be prepared for a high quality compliment. I knew this was my answer.

from duncan c’s flickr – and these would not count as high quality, at least not most of them

This past week I started it. Not exactly as Zac described, but modified for my 3rd grade classroom. Each morning one student is our meeting manager and is in charge of our morning meeting. At the midpoint of our morning meeting now I pause things and give a high quality compliment to that day’s meeting manager. My hope is that the kids will take it on as well.

The second day of trying this was a challenge for me. The meeting manager that morning is not a traditionally challenging kid. He’s well behaved and smart. He’s challenging for me because he often isn’t doing anything. During independent reading he will sit and stare off into space or reorganize the books in his book box (all five or six of them). During math he’ll look at the work but not get started. He’s quiet and not distracting to others, but he doesn’t seem to be doing much thinking. Knowing that morning that I would need a high quality compliment for him I started thinking.

We just finished up a nonfiction writing unit and his book turned out very well. (It was a challenge to get it down and often required he sit right beside me so that I could remind him to keep going. The work was all his. It just required me to keep pushing to get it done.) So I praised his nonfiction writing. My words were genuine, as they have to be for this to matter.

We had indoor recess that day and I watched this boy go get his writing notebook immediately. Maybe he was just excited about the new writing project we just started. And, I’ll be honest, he didn’t write for that long before joining other friends in a game. But I think it’s quite possible the high quality compliment that morning helped him see himself in a new way. A way he liked and wanted to continue building.

I believe there’s power in this.


*That’s what I’ve been calling them anyway. But looking back through my pictures I see that Zac and Matt call them High Grade Compliments.

EduGen Dialogues

At Educon last weekend Michael Doyle and I did a session together about gender. It was the last session of the conference. As Educon tends to be quite intense I was concerned the last session  would be a serious challenge, that those who were still there would be too intellectually tired to do much. I was definitely worried I would be that way! In fact, I tweeted that basic idea about half an hour before our session.

Luckily, I needn’t have worried. The folks who were there definitely engaged. We had some really interesting conversations about gender broadly in society, our personal experiences, and in education. People didn’t always agree, which I think is a good thing because it makes me think more deeply. One of the things that came up very briefly was dress codes. The conversation didn’t follow that tack but I would have been interested if it had (as I was interested in the various directions it did go).

Michael and I had talked about our own personal dress choices for school and we talked some about the societal expectations for men and women. But we didn’t talk much about dress codes for students.

Then I returned to school this week at the start of our third quarter. Our administration had made a video to review our district’s Student Rights and Responsibilities with all of our students. I showed the video to my class. It started off and I was on board. It focused on every student having a right to feel safe and able to learn at school. Before too long, however, it got into dress code.

So much of my district’s dress code is about girls covering their bodies. I know of kindergartners who have been told what they are wearing is inappropriate because it has spaghetti straps. Anyone who finds a five year old’s shoulders to be a distraction is a pedophile. Five year old boys are not distracted by their classmates’ shoulders. That argument is absurd. We should not be telling young girls that their shoulders are a problem.

As girls get older I am no more convinced this argument is valid. We should not be policing girls’ bodies in this way. What message are girls getting when they are told from a very young age that  their bodies are sexual? Not strong or powerful bodies, just sexual. And that the sexuality of their bodies is a problem? What message are we sending boys when they are told that girls’ bodies are such a distraction? I don’t think anyone is learning anything healthy from this.

Like far too many policies and practices in education I believe many dress codes are in place simply because it is what we have done for so long. Because no one is willing to ask why we do it.