Trust Teachers

The first school in which I taught became a Literacy Collaborative school several years into my time there. I co-taught with our upper grade literacy coach (a brilliant, thoughtful educator who is still a close friend) for two years while I participated in the professional development. Then I moved from fifth to first grade and went through the primary literacy collaborative training and opportunities for coaching. It was phenomenal.

That professional development focuses on helping teachers understand how students learn to read and write. The idea is that if teachers understand the learning process for students, they are able to support them as they move through that process. Understanding how students learn to read and write allows teachers to know how to prompt students, what scaffolds to offer them, and generally how to help them.

There’s no script. There’s no day by day set of activities. There’s nothing for a teacher to follow. It respects teachers as professionals. It offers teachers the understanding and the tools to do their job.

When I left that first school I landed in another wonderful school. A school that followed Jan Richardson’s model. I was in kindergarten for the first time in my career and, between working with brand new readers and being in a new building, I tried out Jan’s templates. It felt confining. It felt limiting to my students’ learning.

I realized, at some point (probably far later than I should have), that Jan was giving teachers a structure to follow. Essentially a do this, then this, then this, and kids will learn to read and write. Except it doesn’t work for every kid. Of course not, because nothing works for every kid.

It takes a lot longer for teachers to truly understand how children learn to read and write and the teacher’s role in helping that process move forward. It’s a lot faster to hand teachers a structure to follow. But it’s better for kids, both academically as well as for their sense of themselves as learners, if teachers are knowledgeable and able to adapt and meet kids where they are as readers and writers.

I was reminded of this by a tweet thread from Jess Lifshitz. Her first tweet threw me a little, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.

But I trust Jess and so I assumed there was something there that I wasn’t seeing yet. (An assumption I should make far more often in many different settings.)

Her point, and you can read the entire thread and should, is that giving teachers a list of books doesn’t help them grow the skills to choose books carefully and critically for their classroom libraries. Essentially, giving teachers a list of books, even a phenomenal list, is like giving them a script for teaching. It doesn’t help them actually meet the needs of the kids they’re with every day.

The older I get, the longer I do this job, the more strongly I feel that teachers must be respected and trusted as professionals. When we aren’t, when we’re pushed to follow a script or a program, when we are not allowed to use our professional knowledge and skills, students are deprived of many opportunities.

Give teachers the chance to learn what they need to know. Support them as they learn. Encourage them when they make mistakes. Help them trust themselves. Let them grow and kids will benefit.

Boundaries to Patience

Recently I asked a former colleague (and close friend) who works in my district’s central office for counseling if she would come in a observe in my classroom. I wanted a fresh set of eyes to see my students and suggest strategies I could use to help them. In addition, I wanted someone who has known me long enough and well enough to not need to be kind in telling me about what’s going on here. I wanted someone to watch and see if the ways I was responding to kids was making the situation worse sometimes. (I genuinely think that’s happening with a few kids, unfortunately. Some of it is my own stupid need for power and control, something I’m constantly fighting against in the classroom. Some of it is just not knowing how best to respond in certain situations and doing whatever comes to mind first.)

She spent a couple of hours with us on our first day back after the kids had been off for four days. It was a slightly more challenging day than usual, as a result. I am grateful beyond words for her thoughtful observations and knowledgeable suggestions. A week later I can see clear positive changes resulting from her visit.

After she had gone we texted a bit, trying to find a time to debrief. At some point I said something about feeling as though I was hindering rather than helping kids, at least sometimes. Her response really got me.

She said that I have “shown them that there are limits to patience.”

That statement was an incredible gift. I am not eight years old. I have to be able to control my own reactions and behavior better than my students should be able or expected to do. But I am human. I have limits too. And I am allowed to have limits. I am allowed to be human.I am grateful for that reminder.

On a lighter note from Dave’s flickr


Struggling with Fractions

We just started our fractions unit this week. The positive is that a lot of my kiddos seem to have an innate understanding of how to share things equally. They don’t know how to write the result, how to notate the fractions, but they seem to get the idea.

The few that don’t get it are really struggling. My table is always open for kids who want some help. I will pull kids there if I feel they need it (as I did with one of the kids below) but my students know they can always come and join us if they want/need the extra support.

Yesterday two kiddos spent a lot of time at my table. Others came and went as they needed a push and then things clicked but these two worked with me for quite some time. I realized quickly that drawing pictures to share things wasn’t quite cutting it for them. Three kids sharing six candy bars sounds like an obvious one but it wasn’t making sense for them. I grabbed six index cards and offered them as candy bars. Almost immediately they realized each kid would get two candy bars.

The next question was about four kids sharing a pizza. I sat my pen holder on a blank piece of paper and traced the circle. They cut it into four pieces pretty quickly. We were on a roll. Next up, three cookies for six children. I traced my water bottle three times but it wasn’t quite clicking. So I handed them six paper clips and said, “Here are your six kids. How could they share the cookies?” They put the paper clips on the cookies and figured out everyone got one half.

From there we worked with index cards, traced circles, and paper clips and figured out eight kids sharing four pizzas, four kids sharing three candy bars (that one took a bit but they did it), and six kids sharing two candy bars. It was fantastic.

I have a tendency to not pull out manipulatives nearly as often as I should. We have plenty of options: pattern blocks, unifix cubes, place value blocks, cuisenaire rods, and more. The kids can get them anytime they want. I just need to remember to suggest those tools when they might be useful. Yesterday was a good reminder of the power of being able to cut things, draw on things, move things around.

This was awesome. When drawing they were cutting things up without a sense of why. As soon as the paper clips came in, it clicked.

A Win

Yesterday was Veterans Day so many of the parents of my students had the day off, but we had school. A couple of my kiddos weren’t there. It turns out they both spent the day with their active duty parent. (Which impresses the heck out of me because if I could have a day at home while my children are at school I would be beyond thrilled.)

One of these kiddos often struggles to readjust to school on Monday and today was no exception. She and I worked through some serious frustrations and, on the whole, had a pretty good day. If a day that likely wore both of us out.

On Tuesdays we go to the library, then to Think Tank (a special class focused on critical and creative thinking), then to the computer lab, and then back to our room to head home. I’m with them for the library but Think Tank and the computer lab are my planning time.

We left the library this afternoon, in a rush as we always do because checking out books is serious business and I hate to rush them through it. So I rush them out once they’re done. As we headed down the hallway I noticed my special friend go into the gym rather than follow our line. I took my class on to Think Tank and then headed back to the gym.

We often have three classes in the gym at the same time so it’s a busy place. I quickly found my kiddo on a tumbling mat with shoes off. I knelt down and told her she needed to put her shoes on because we don’t have P.E. today. I was fully prepared for anger and frustration. I was wrong. She put her shoes on and we walked out together. As we made our way to Think Tank I asked her about her day with her mom yesterday. I asked if it was hard to get used to being back in school. She said it is and that’s why she went to the gym, because she was thinking it was Monday. We have P.E. on Mondays.

from Dave’s flickr

She headed quite willingly into Think Tank and I walked away to a meeting reflecting on how that had gone. It had been such a smooth transition from the gym and I had not anticipated that. As much as I hate to admit it, I think I was assuming she’d headed into the gym out of defiance. Not out of confusion.

By not tackling the situation as though she were being defiant I didn’t push her into that stance. It didn’t become a battle or a power struggle to get to Think Tank. I expected it to go that way. It was a treat to have it be so smooth.

I hate that my gut instinct is, far too often, to assume kids are being defiant. I can usually pause just long enough to not respond as if that is the case, thank goodness. Because most of the time kids aren’t.

It may have been a factor that our admin just shared this article, from Responsive Classroom, about responding to defiance in their weekly email to the staff. I don’t know how many of us needed to read it but it seems clear to me that I definitely did.

The added bonus to all of this is that every time this child and I are able to have positive interactions like this, we are more likely to have more positive interactions. Every time I respond with frustration or an attempt to control, I’m likely setting us up for more challenges. Today was a win.

Same School District, Different World

I am teaching in the same school district in which I went to school and in which I’ve taught for more than 20 years. I attended three different schools in this district and I am teaching in my third school. In addition, between college and full-time teaching I did quite a bit of substitute teaching. First I did so in the area in which I grew up and then I did so at the other end of our county so it covered a decent number of schools. My point is that I have experience with a lot of different schools in my district.

But this year I am in a new (to me) school. As I’ve said, it’s in my school district but it is also located on a military base. I am regularly struck by ways in which that makes this situation different from any other school I’ve known. This has led to a new hashtag only I am using: #SameSchoolDistrictDifferentWorld.

In conversations with my principal or with colleagues I keep hearing, often just in passing, other things that surprise me. Being on a military base, post-9/11, is unique. The part that really gets me is that the things that strike me as so surprising and unusual are the norms for my students and their families. This first quarter of the year has been eye opening for me and I don’t anticipate that stopping anytime soon.

Finding Balance

Thursday morning I woke up with a sore throat. In case you aren’t an elementary school teacher or a parent of young children, Thursday was Halloween. Not a day it would be easy to take off from school, especially at the last minute. Friday morning was not different, not surprisingly. The sore throat was still there. Of course, my team had opted to invite families in to read with their kids for an hour that morning. Another day on which a guest teacher would have been a challenge (even if it was likely a sub would pick up a job at a primary school the day after Halloween…).

In recent years I have learned that a sore throat is my body’s way of letting me know that it needs a break. If, like I did this time, I opt to ignore the signs my body is sending me, it takes it to the next level. I woke up Saturday morning and felt awful. The sore throat was worse, I couldn’t stop coughing, and I just felt drained in every way. I was planning to attend a one-day conference in the area and spent quite a while in the morning debating the chances of attendance. I decided it would be a dumb move to go and spent the day resting. Today too. My body is still not completely ready to forgive me, but it seems willing to compromise. I have school all week, but kids won’t be in until Wednesday. That means I have two days that will be slightly more flexible and low-key. I’m hoping that will allow me to be in shape to get through the rest of November. (Chances are good my body will crash come Thanksgiving, but I’ll deal with that then.)


Boundaries Can Push Us Too

I have one little darling this year who loves to throw a football around at recess every day. Unfortunately, he doesn’t love lining up and going in with our class. So the deal, lately, is that if he doesn’t line up and I have to send someone to get him, he can’t play on the field the next day. He has to stay in the playground area. It’s a lot harder to pretend he doesn’t know we’re lining up when he’s in the same space as most of his classmates.

Today was one of those days he was stuck on the playground. Every time I looked at him he seemed to be having a great time. In spite of that fact, I’m sure he’ll be back on the field throwing a football tomorrow, but I was glad to see him enjoying the playground today.

It got me thinking back to a session on inquiry I did recently. I’m a big believer in inquiry. I try to do it in my classroom often. But not always. I’m not that good, for one thing. But, also, I think we need parameters, prompts, or other things that push us in a different way sometimes. That may be exactly what we need to discover a new passion or strategy or story that we never could have imagined.

from Roger’s flickr

My kiddo on the playground was, for the majority of the time, involved in some serious imaginary play today. Entire worlds were being created around the jungle gym and slides. That’s not happening on the field with the football. Neither is better or worse than the other, but I’m glad he’s having time and opportunities for both.

Lessons Learned

This weekend I managed to get to a soccer game and see a few of my students play. With only one game left in the season they are undefeated. They are doing so well, this 10 and under team, that they are often beating their opponents by more than five goals.

from TheKilens flickr

Some years ago I played on a co-ed softball team with some colleagues and others. I don’t remember the exact rule in that league (as I’m not sure it ever impacted one of our games) but there was a slaughter rule. If one team was up by a set number of runs after a set number of innings, the game ended. That was it.

For this 10 and under soccer league they handle ‘slaughters’ a little differently. Once a team is up by five goals, they pull a player off the field. The dominating teams plays down one player. After a set number of more goals, they pull another player and play down two. That way the kids still play a full game but it levels the field a bit rather than have young kids deal with losing by double digits.

I heard some parents grumbling that this regulation was teaching kids that if you’re really good or skilled you’ll get pulled out. That seems absurd for a few reasons. First of all, I doubt any coach is pulling their most skilled players from the field first. Second, I think there are plenty of messages kids will get from the policy before they get that message.

But it got me thinking about the concerns adults have about what decisions, policies, and regulations are teaching kids. We do need to think about this and do so deeply and critically. It’s a pretty constant focus of reflection for me to consider how my actions, expectations, and such are sending kids very clear messages. And often not the messages I want to be sending.

I worry, though, that the adults in kids lives are far more likely to think carefully about the messages kids are getting from adults other than themselves and not enough about the messages they are sending. We restrict so many things in children’s lives without considering what messages that sends to them. The messages about how we don’t trust them. The messages about how they are not fully functioning humans.

We should be as thoughtful about the messages we are sending to children as we are about the messages they are getting from others.

Resources to Match the Needs

When I was ready to start teaching more than 20 years ago*, my now-husband was working on his PhD at Johns Hopkins University. I knew I didn’t want to teach in Baltimore City, even though I loved living there. This is not so much a failing on the city of Baltimore as it is on me. I knew if I began my career in such a challenging setting (a school system with as many difficulties as that one has) I would likely not have lasted as a teacher. I would have given up in the first few years. I have immense respect, so much respect, for teachers in school districts with serious challenges.

I convinced my now-husband to move to Northern Virginia once he was ABD (all but dissertation) so that I could teach in my current district. (In my defense, once he was ABD the research for his dissertation was all in Washington, D.C., Richmond, VA, and Pittsylvania County, VA so living in Northern Virginia definitely made at least as much sense as living in Baltimore.) I substitute taught and began to get to know where I might want to teach.

While I hadn’t wanted to teach in Baltimore, because I didn’t feel I would be successful there and kids deserve successful teachers, I wanted to serve students that really need strong teachers. Not that I was a strong teacher in the very beginning! Being in my current district seemed like the best of both worlds: we have plenty of students who need strong teachers in a district that has the resources to support teachers and kids.

My school district has more than 200 schools. Many of them are full of kids who come from financially stable homes. Kids whose families know the dominant culture and can navigate the schools on behalf of their kids. Which isn’t to say those kids don’t face challenges, as many of them do. It is simply to say they have advantages over kids whose families are not financially stable and don’t know how to navigate the system.

For my first 21 years of teaching I taught in schools that were mostly populated by students who were first or second generation immigrants. These students were mostly learning English, facing financial challenges, and had families that are still learning how to navigate systems in this country. Students who definitely needed teachers who would advocate for them in the system and do everything possible to ensure they had the knowledge and skills to be successful in the society in which they live.

This year, for the first time ever, I am teaching a class of students who have all grown up speaking English. (I have all of their last names memorized already and that has never happened because the majority of my students in previous years have had two last names as they were Latinx and it would take me longer to get them all down. Only one last name per kid is a new thing for me.) My school is not a Title I school, which would suggest that my students are in more financially stable families (although that’s a bit misleading, I believe). My current students definitely have advantages my previous students lacked.

That said, my current students are all in military families, with all that entails. Frequent change is definitely one thing that is true for them. Many of them move regularly. Many have parents who have or are deployed. And even if they aren’t moving, friends move away quite often. (In addition, right now lots of our students are displaced because their housing on post has mold. So just one more change in their lives.)

Many of my students have noticeable needs that go beyond and impact their academics. I am again grateful to be in a school district with lots of resources. We have three counselors provided by the school district. We have two instructional coaches. We have three assistant principals. (We do have nearly 1,000 students, so that is a factor in some of this staffing.) We have wonderful support from our central offices.

This means that my students have so much more than just me. In many school districts I’d be navigating a lot of these challenges in far more isolation. It is an absolute gift to have the people and tools available to me to help my students.


*I didn’t begin teaching directly out of college, although that had been my initial plan. Instead, I played the harp on a cruise ship for a bit. Before getting hired and between contracts on the ship, in order to have some income, I substitute taught and worked in a bookstore.

Today’s Celebrations

I met with a couple of guided writing groups today. This week I’ve finally been doing some serious writing conferences and meeting with targeted guided writing groups. That alone has been exciting. Talking to kids about their writing is such fun.

One group had done some great writing of personal narratives and I wanted to help them do some revising. They each picked the piece they want to publish and looked for dialogue in it. On the whole they didn’t find any because it’s not a natural thing for most kids to include in their writing. So we talked about what dialogue they could add and where in the story it belonged. They then wrote on post it notes to add these parts.

Also during our writing time I heard two students remark, not to me, on how they had used contractions in their writing. Fitting any kind of word study exploration into our day is a constant challenge for me but I put some in our morning messages every day. This week we’ve had contractions. And it’s clearly sinking in with some kiddos. Yay!