Talk Less, Smile More

I may not agree with Burr’s reasoning for this adage, talk less, smile more, in Hamilton, but I think it’s a pretty good mantra in general. Especially for teachers to have. I’m pretty good at the ‘smile more’ part but I really stink at the ‘talk less’ piece.


Leslie Odom Jr, who played Burr in Hamilton from photos taken by the White House

Talk Less

One problem I have is that I often start talking too soon. My brain hasn’t fully fleshed out the idea I want to get across. So I talk my way to it. Not a good strategy. It means I use a good ten times as many words as I should need. By the time I’ve figured out what I’m really trying to say, my students have likely tuned out. I would have. Talking less doesn’t have to mean I’m saying less. It means I need to be thoughtful about the words I’m choosing in order to succinctly say I what I want to say.

I also believe, not surprisingly, that talking is a great way to move thinking forward. As a result, I want my kiddos to talk. If I’m talking, they probably aren’t (although it’s not a guarantee!). On occasion I’ve asked colleagues to come in and observe who is talking for how much of the time. My own perception can be off in either direction and it helps to have an impartial set of ears focused on this question. I’ve also recorded lessons so that I can watch and listen later to see how much talking we’re all doing. My goal would be to have my students talking at a significantly higher percentage than I. Of course, this also requires that I’m better at the planning as noted above. When I do talk in my classroom, I want my words and questions to push my students’ thinking. (This is a place I fear I fail as parent as well as a teacher.)

Smile More

I know as a busy person that I don’t always smile as much as I’d like at my own daughters (or my husband, but this is about kids). I get caught up in everything that needs to be done, in the details of our days, and lose sight of the big picture. I would be surprised if I were alone in this as a parent.

I face similar challenges at school. There’s always more to do. Getting X, Y, and Z done before lunch and then A, B, and C before we head home. I have trouble living each moment instead of rushing into the next one. Because of this, I make sure I greet every student at the door with a smile and their name in the mornings. I want to be sure I smile at everyone at least once. Hopefully they get many more smiles throughout the day, but just in case…

In the hallways and lunchroom I try to smile at everyone, kids and adults. I know seeing a smile can lift one up. I believe if we all smiled at one another throughout the day it would shift the atmosphere just a tad with each smile. Our school would become an even brighter, happier place to be for all of us. It’s tough to be in a bad mood when you’re smiling and it’s tough not to smile when everyone else is smiling at you.

Talk less, smile more. I believe my youngest daughter’s fourth grade teacher has this hanging in a frame in her classroom. That might not be a bad idea, a constant reminder to myself. Four words, nothing life-changing in some ways, and yet maybe it could be.

Never Be Satisfied

In Hamilton, the fact that he will “never be satisfied” has positives and some significant negatives. He pushes himself to do more and do better as a result of never being satisfied but he also doesn’t ever feel finished. There’s no contentment with a job well done. Because, to him, the job has never been done well enough.


Photo by Jurvetson on flickr

In my mind, this is surprisingly similar to most teachers. We will never be satisfied. I know this to be true for myself. It’s true for how I look at both myself and my students. Early in my teaching career summers were really rough for me. Life would slow down and I would have time to reflect, which mostly meant thinking about all the things I had not done as well as I had hoped. I would spend a good portion of the summer beating myself up for not being the teacher I wanted to be. (The difference now is that summers are far too busy for this so I just do it regularly instead of saving it up.)

I believe the positive to this is that I continually keep growing as a teacher. I keep reading, thinking, reflecting, and trying new things. Never being satisfied means never getting complacent. I’ll never be good enough but I’ll never stop getting better either.

When it comes to my students, this is a bit more challenging for me in that I’m not as confident of the positive side. As soon as my students reach a bar I’ve set for them, I raise it. Often I do so without even realizing I have. On one hand, that means I’m always keeping the expectations high. On the other hand, my students deserve a chance to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments.

Never being satisfied has its good points for both teachers and kids. I think it’s important to recognize it, however, in order to not go overboard. Keep stretching, keep pushing, but don’t forget to stop sometimes and see how far you’ve come.

Hamilton Blog Series

I have long been a lover of musical theater. I saw my first Broadway show at 13 – it was 42nd Street. A few years later we were back in NYC to see Les Mis. I’ve lost count of the Broadway shows I’ve seen since then, as well as other performances in DC and elsewhere. If I had the money and time I’d see shows every week. My daughters are also now fans. The oldest saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (her favorite show at the time) when she was 3. Their big Christmas gift each year is tickets to a show. We’ve seen Les Mis and Joseph and others that way. We’re also fans of community theater and our local high school productions.

All of this is to say that it isn’t surprising that we’re huge Hamilfans. My husband is a historian, which adds to his love of the show. Our current family read is the Hamiltome. We read the essays and listen to the songs, stopping to read the footnotes. And, not surprisingly, we quote the show a lot.


Photo by Jurvetson on flickr


One result of this obsession, for me, is a blog series, the Hamilton Blog Series (HBS). Over the next few weeks or so, I’ll be writing blog posts about education with titles taken from Hamilton. We’ll see how it goes…


Posts in the series:

Never Be Satisfied
Talk Less, Smile More
The Room Where It Happens
Who Tells Your Story?
There’s Nothing That Your Mind Can’t Do
Wait For It

Loving Third Grade

After eight years with first graders and kindergartners starting this year with third graders was a bit of a question for me. Four weeks in, I can say that I love it. Third graders (or at least this group of them) are awesome. They are thoughtful, interested in everything, and just a lot of fun.

If you can look at these photos from our first week and not be totally jealous of me, then you have a cold, cold heart.









Much Love for the Blogosphere

Many factors have shaped the teacher I have become over the past two decades. In the more recent decade, a significant factor is this online world in which I spend quite a bit of time. Twitter and blogs are often the way I wrap up each day, lounging in my bedroom with bad tv on reading and soaking in the brilliance of educators of all types. I feel lucky to be teaching at a time when connecting with folks so different from me (geographically, in who and what we teach, in our backgrounds, etc.) is so easy.

This first week of school I’ve been struck by how much the blogs I read focus on students. I do read blogs quite specifically about math content and instruction or literacy and books, but many of my absolute favorites have students at the center. I fear that in education in general this isn’t true right now. We’ve swung in the direction of focusing on specific standards and skills and focusing on students only in response to their ability to master those things. It’s reassuring to read these folks and be reminded that students are people with all that entails and that they are the reason we’re here doing what we do each day.

A few examples:

A professor I worked with for nearly 15 years through the local university’s professional development school’s program has started blogging recently and it brings me joy every time she has a new post. This recent one is about the importance of starting the year by showing students you care about them as people.

On your first day of school you only have to do one thing – let the children know that you care. Let them know you care about them as students. Let them know you care about them as people.

Karl Fisch, on the other hand, probably started blogging before I knew what blogging was (and I wasn’t that late to this game!). Karl, if you don’t know him, is a high school math teacher, making him about as different from me as he can be. But he’s another that lifts me when I see a new post. This one is about what should and shouldn’t be factored into students’ grades. That may not sound too student-focused, but take a moment and read and see how much his care for his students drives his thinking.

Another who has been blogging for many years is Chris Lehmann. Chris is one I’ve spent time with in both professional settings and casual ones and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who shows more care for the students in his school (and students in general). His recent post is one that is typical for him in many ways. He is responding to something many folks had shared online and thinking more deeply about it and what message it sends to our students and families.

As educators, when we have the chance to show kindness, we should. As educators, when we have the chance to make sure kids see that home and school can work together in a child’s best interest, we should. And as educators, when we have the chance to remind kids that it’s ok not to be perfect and that we all need help from time to time, we should.

Another one who makes me smile every time he posts something new is Jose Luis Vilson. He wrote recently about his son’s first day of pre-k and it’s wonderful. But you also get a sense of the importance of all the children in his care every day.

I am so lucky to have found these folks and to learn from them regularly. Their thinking and writing make me a better teacher.

Emotional Start to Each Year

I have a serious love-hate relationship with the start of a school year. Now that I’ve done it a few times I can see more clearly the emotions I feel each year.

I love:

  • the excitement and energy of a new year
  • starting fresh – no bad habits set in stone yet
  • new stuff – a new year always means some new stuff
  • no testing yet, we get to start off the year with at least a short grace period before standardized assessments begin

I hate:

  • not knowing my students – more than anything this is my least favorite part of a new year – I don’t know the details of my kids’ interests and frustrations and lives
  • setting up routines – I just want things to be rolling, not working on getting it rolling
  • the level of exhaustion that the new year brings – not being in routines yet, now knowing my kiddos well, it’s all exhausting

I’m sure there are teachers who love the start of a new year. Who love the puzzle of getting to know their kiddos. Who love establishing routines. Who aren’t exhausted by it all for the first few weeks, ready to go to bed before sundown. I, however, am willing to admit that I’m not one of them.


I’m going to love and know these kids soon. Just not soon enough.


Head Banging

When I taught first graders we had a system for our kiddos to log onto the computers. For my class, it was 2144Orr. At the beginning of the year with first graders that was a tough log on, numbers and letters and even one uppercase letter! I thought about asking our tech person to change the password to make it easier but decided against it (or I’m just too lazy).

I realized that if I were willing to beat my head against the wall for two or three weeks my kiddos would be able to log themselves on independently and they’d know how to find some numbers and letters and how to make uppercase letters. It was worth the pain for what it gained us for the rest of the year.

Head Bang

from Raoul Snyman’s flickr


That’s how I feel about the start of every year, no matter what grade level I’m in. The first month or two of the year is about banging my head against the wall so that the rest of the year runs smoothly. If something is important to me I have to focus on it consistently until it’s routine. Saying or modeling it once or twice doesn’t get us where I want us to be.

At the start of the year I bang my head against the wall so that my kids push their chairs in (I hate tripping over chairs, it’s a serious pet peeve of mine).
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids deal with their breakfast trash properly.
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids greet me at our door each morning (although they have lots of choices about how they greet me).
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids ask questions whenever they have them.
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids sign books in and out of our classroom library.
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids understand the choices they have in the lunch line.
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids have a routine down pat for dealing with backpacks, Wednesday folders (with information for families), and paperwork in the mornings.
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids know where we go each day and at what time (because that way I don’t always have to remember).
I bang my head against the wall so that my kids argue with me when they think there are better ways to do things or they think I’m wrong.

I’ll be looking back at this list over the next two months to help me remember why I am so exhausted that I’m in bed by 8:00 every night.

Little Touches in Our Classroom

I’ve been thinking a lot about our classroom and making the space ready for kids. Thinking about this requires big picture and small picture reflections. I frequently stop, step back, and try to take in the whole room but also look critically at different parts (the library, our carpet area, each of the tables, my work space, etc.). However, just as important, for me at least, are the little touches that bring joy. One of those things is that I don’t use the overhead lights. I’m lucky to have a full wall of windows that lets in a lot of natural light. I also have floor lamps in each corner and rope lights on two walls.

Rope Lights

a rope light – they stretch nicely, stay up well, and give off quite a bit of light


Some of the little touches in our room are directly about our thinking and learning. We have a wonder window/table area. Our windows look out onto our courtyard with a wonderful habitat (thanks to our fabulous science specialist) and we have bird feeders hanging on our window. Inside we have plants, shells, rocks, nuts, a bird’s nest, a snakeskin, and more for kids to explore.

Day Before Kids I Wonder  Day Before Kids Plants

Other small touches are just there because they make me smile. Like these birds on the wall between our windows. They have no purpose. I just like them.

Day Before Kids Birds

These hearts were found at a fair trade shop in Fredericksburg when I spent a day there with Michelle. They spoke to me and I decided they would be a thoughtful touch in our room. (They say: gratitude, hope, wisdom, inspire, dream, peace.)

Day Before Kids Hearts

These birds came from the same shop. I LOVE them. No one else may care or even notice them, but I will.

Day Before Kids Silver Birds

Finally, our bulletin board. I found this big wooden key at a thrift shop in Fredericksburg (on a different trip) and immediately remembered something I did years ago with my fourth graders. We had a bunch of construction paper keys we had made for an inservice and I hated the idea of throwing them away. I took them to my room and the kids wrote on them when they noticed a classmate being a ‘key to success’ in our room. I haven’t done this in 1st or K because the kids can’t write enough to share in this way. But 3rd graders can. So I’m bringing this idea back. I can’t wait to see this bulletin board covered with keys written on by kids.

Day Before Kids Key Bulletin Board  Day Before Kids Key Poster

Day Before Kids From Door Annotated  Day Before Kids From Door 2. Annotated


More Thoughts on Our Classroom Spaces

This is my third year at this school and my third classroom location. It’s also the smallest I’ve had so far. (There are smaller spaces in the building and we have an entire grade level in trailers so I’m not complaining!) Throughout the year I’m also reflecting on how our space is working for us and what we could to do make it better. I think about what furniture works well and what we might be better off without. Of course, if you aren’t in the same space or with the same age kiddos each year, those reflections aren’t very helpful! So, here are some initial reflections on this new space with a new grade level of kiddos.

Day Before Kids Carpet

A whole class carpet area is critical. In a classroom with a mounted smartboard the location of this space is set for me. We’ll use the smartboard to do our morning message every day because it saves chart paper but still allows us to keep our morning messages, which isn’t so simple if we do them on the easel white board. I want as much of the carpet open as possible. This means I don’t want stuff blocking the sides of it more than necessary because I want kids to be able to flow on and off easily. I also want as little stuff on the carpet as possible so that the kids have all the space they want/need. This also means I need to think about the projector and document camera and speakers and such. This year I have a cart (it’s in pretty rough shape but I haven’t had a cart for the past two years so I’ll take it). We’ll see how well it works this year…

Day Before Kids Electronics Cart

This couch has been in my classroom for the past eight years. My mother bought it, after much debating some years ago, for the living room. She even had various family members go check it out before buying it because it wasn’t her usual style and she couldn’t decide. But it was relatively cheap and we all supported it so she got it. Maybe two years later she decided it really wasn’t her. Some of my then-colleagues had it in their shared townhouse for a year or two, but when they all split to go different ways I got it back. I love having it in the classroom for the kids and for me. When something bad happens to it, I’ll send it out to the dumpster with many thanks for the years we’ve had.

Day Before Kids Couch

Another hand me down from my folks is this electric piano. We had it in our home, bought second hand when I was in middle school, I think. My parents kept it after I left (I was/am the only one in the family who played) even after I took the upright piano. Several years ago, when they sold the house, I took this piano to school and it’s wonderful. It doesn’t take up as much space as an upright and it sounds great. It’s old and I don’t know how many more years I’ll get out of it. Nor do I know how much I’ll use it in third grade. In first and kinder it was wonderful. Again, we’ll see this year.

Day Before Kids Piano

I’m less happy with this space than almost any other in the classroom. This is my table. I got rid of my desk about five years ago and haven’t looked back. This is probably more organized than my desk ever was, but it’s still more chaotic than I would like it to be. I need to carve out some time to clean up the white board, on which I’ve just stuck a lot of stuff, and the rest of the space. I want it to be organized and neat so that it doesn’t add to my stress.

Day Before Kids My Table


Classroom Space

I’ve set up a lot of different classrooms over the years. In those years I’ve been in seven different physical classrooms and been in five different grades. The physical space and the grade level impact our classroom design.

When you enter, this is what you see. Straight ahead is our carpet area and wonder window.




Day Before Kids From Door


If you look to the left, you can see the rest of the room. (The lights are on here but only because I took these pictures at 8:00 at night. Typically we’ll turn on the floor lamps, one in each corner, and the rope lights on two walls and that’ll be enough.)

Day Before Kids From Door 2

If you walk straight ahead from the door to the corner near the window, these are your views.

Day Before Kids From Heather 2 Day Before Kids From Heather


The corner diagonally from our door sees these views, looking past the library, couch, and towards the carpet.


Day Before Kids From Reading Corner Day Before Kids From Reading Corner 2


From the last corner, these are the views. The tables here are covered with tubs ready for all of our supplies to arrive next week. The chairs in the corner need to leave as we have more than enough!

Day Before Kids From Closet 2 Day Before Kids From Closet


School tables are fine, but I like to have options for the kids. This table is in our library area and it’s low to the ground so kids can sit on the floor or on pillows around it. They’re also likely to sit on it, which works too.

Day Before Kids Low Table

This is one of this summer’s Craig’s List purchases. I like having smaller tables but had trouble finding tables for just two kids. I really liked this tiled dining room table and it definitely has a cozy feel with the little folding chairs from Ikea.

Day Before Kids Table


Another Craig’s List purchase. This one is for kids who want to stand while they work.

Day Before Kids Tall Table


I’ve got two sets of trapezoid tables set up in this way. This one has stools and the other has regular school chairs.

Day Before Kids Trapezoid Tables


So, kids can sit on the floor, pillows, chairs, stools, or even stand. There are two bins of clipboards in different spots in the room in case they want another option.

My goal is to create a warm, welcoming classroom that is as flexible as possible. I also try to stay on our custodians’ good side and (mostly) meet the fire marshal regulations. It’s quite a tightrope.